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Ranking the world’s best orchestras

Thinking I would become better informed about the world’s classical music scene, I’ve recently subscribed to the magazine Gramophone, and the very first issue I received is the December 2008 one whose cover announces a ranking of “the world’s greatest orchestras.”  The list has been deeply controversial, especially in Philadelphia, whose orchestra was omitted from the list.  Here is how they ranked them:

1.  Royal Concertgebouw (their concert hall pictured above)
2.  Berlin Philharmonic
3.  Vienna Philharmonic
4.  London Symphony Orchestra
5.  Chicago Symphony Orchestra
6.  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
7.  Cleveland Orchestra
8.  Los Angeles Philharmonic
9.  Budapest Festival Orchestra
10.  Dresden Staatskapelle
11.  Boston Symphony Orchestra
12.  New York Philharmonic
13.  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
14.  Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
15.  Russian National Orchestra
16.  St. Petersburg Philharmonic
17.  Leipzig Gewandhaus
18.  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
19.  Saito Kinen Orchestra
20.  Czech Philharmonic

The insult to Philadelphia is especially sharp given that the Orchestra plays in one of the most magnificent symphony halls in the world (the gorgeous cello-shaped Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts), and because Gramophone list them in a box headlined “Past Glories,” along with the NBC Orchestra, which was disbanded decades ago.  (The Gramophone editor did email the Philadelphia Inquirer to note that they had made the top thirty list).  Some have wondered whether the critics are still made that Philadelphia dumped Christoph Eschenbach.

On first opening the article, I thought (fleetingly) that I might see the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra listed, if not as a top twenty then maybe as an up-and-coming – as a novice it seems to me their playing is crisper and their programming more wide-ranging and interesting under Robert Spano – but no such luck.  And how could I defend such a judgment anyway, having never heard most of the symphonies that made the final ranking?

The methodology of the list, which no matter how devised would be impossible to defend, was to have a small number of critics (eleven all told) consider live performance, recorded output, community contributions, and “the ability to maintain iconic status in an increasingly competitive contemporary climate,” whatever that means.  As one might expect, this procedure has many commentators scratching their heads.  Some have articulated alternative criteria, such as the quality of the conductor (certainly the symbiotic relationship between conductor and ensemble cannot be easily reduced to a ranking of this sort).  One blogger has noted that, given how unlikely it is that any of the panel would have seen live performances of all these organizations, the better tack would have been to have a ranking done by conductors in wide circulation (with a presumably better comparative sense of talent).

Does the surprisingly high ranking for the LSO reflect the fact that Gramophone is produced in Great Britain?  Does it matter that Mariisky and Vienna and the Metropolitan Opera ensembles mostly play in the pit?  Doesn’t critical buzz lag actual quality playing, and shouldn’t that be considered?  Should the strong recording histories of some orchestras necessarily fortify their place on the list when others may be arbitrarily restrained?  One commentator noted that Berlin under Karajan got recorded every time they sneezed, whereas New York was (arguably) under-recorded in the same period for reasons beyond their control (union contracts, etc.).  Shouldn’t it matter that some groups will be fabulous playing Bruckner and lousy playing Wagner?  How should one relatively weigh “best playing” with “most interesting programs”?  Don’t reviewing critics get ideas in their heads that sediment and are difficult to change even when the facts on the ground are fast-evolving?  And given the inevitable variability in repertoire, how can one plausibly make apples-and-oranges comparisons with any validity?  As the London Telegraph (November 26) put it,

The exercise is fundamentally preposterous, not because the placings might trigger controversy but because there are no such absolutes in music.  Asked to name the eighth “best” singer in the world or the 15th “best” violinist, we might all be hard pressed.  The same goes for orchestras, where there are considerably more variables to take into account.  Different traditions, different repertoires, halls and conductors all have an impact.  No matter how scientifically this poll was conducted, or who was involved in the voting, it bypasses the fact that the quality to celebrate in orchestras is not their top-twenty status but their diversity and the individual attributes they might bring to the performance of music.

Considering the number one orchestra, which is without doubt an incredible ensemble, brings some of these concerns into sharp relief:  Mariss Jansons has only been conducting in Amsterdam since 2004 and replaced Riccardo Chailly, who started out highly controversial (though the unanimous pick of the players he was their first ever non-Dutch conductor) and was early-on criticized by some for wrecking the Concertgebouw sound.  So is this rating reflective of true world’s-best artistry or of Jansons’ conducting honeymoon or the aftermath of the Chailly Age, which gradually gained fans and won respect?

The classical music blogger for the Guardian (UK), Tom Service, asks:  “Is the Dresden Staatskapelle really almost twice as good as the Leipzig Gewandhaus?  Should the New York Philharmonic be more highly ranked than the San Francisco Symphony when Michael Tilson Thomas’s reign in San Francisco has been infinitely more interesting than Lorin Maazel’s at Lincoln Centre?”

And so all seem agreed that the ranking is an absurdity, yes?  But the impulse to rank (which will undoubtedly move a lot of Gramophone issues) is as hard to resist for editors as it is for those recognized – you can bet the Dutch orchestra put atop the list will forever refer to itself as “having been named the world’s greatest orchestra by the authoritative publication Gramophone.”


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