Updated: Dec 25, 2022
By Alkis Karmpaliotis, High School Student NYC
Founder of AppreciateOpera.org
There are dozens of good orchestras across the world, but what sets the great ones apart is the strength of their musicians, the richness of their history, and most importantly, the uniqueness of their sound. These three characteristics determine the quality of an orchestra.
Having skilled musicians is essential to a good orchestra. One player being out of place can affect the sound of the ensemble as a whole. This is why many premiere orchestras require long testing processes for admission and often require years of preparation to enter. More important than the strength of individual musicians, however, is an orchestra's ability to sound like one complete unit rather than sound like dozens of soloists playing simultaneously. The best orchestras contain musicians that are not only excellent players but who can all play in the same style so as to produce a cohesive sound.
An orchestra's history does not make it or break it, but a history of great conductors can definitely help make its case. The most famous orchestras are usually very old and have worked with some of the best conductors of all time. Furthermore, the most prestigious orchestras are very selective in the conductors they choose to invite. Working with high-level orchestras is oftentimes a great honor for conductors.
The most important characteristic of an orchestra is its sound. Great orchestras usually produce very unique sounds, and as I mentioned above, always sound cohesive. In some extreme cases, elite ensembles are able to keep themselves in time even without a conductor.
These three things and many more go into judging an orchestra's level - but it is important to remember that with these orchestras, you can't really go wrong with any of them.
Notable Music Directors (Gewandhauskapellmeisters): Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Herbert Blomstedt, Andris Nelsons (current)
New York Philharmonic
Home: David Geffen Hall
Notable Music Directors: Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Jaap van Zweden (current)
Home: Gasteig Philharmonie
Notable Principal Conductors: Sergiu Celibidache, Lorin Maazel, Valery Gergiev
10. Boston Symphony Orchestra
Home: Symphony Hall
Music Director: Andris Nelsons
The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), along with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Cleveland Orchestra, is part of America's 'Big 5' orchestras. The BSO has been led by great conductors such as Erich Leinsdorf and Seiji Ozawa and has recorded several film soundtracks including Schindler's List. Every summer, the BSO performs at one of the world's most famous festivals: the Tanglewood Music Festival (pictured above).
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Artur Rubinstein) - Erich Leinsdorf
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade - Seiji Ozawa
Brahms: The Symphonies - Andris Nelsons
9. Philharmonia Orchestra
Home: Royal Festival Hall
Principal Conductor: Santtu-Matias Rouvali
The Philharmonia, along with the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic, and Royal Philharmonic, is one of London's 'Big 4' orchestras. In its early years, the orchestra worked with conductors including the great composer Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Arturo Toscanini. In what better hands could one wish to place a new orchestra?
The conductor arguably most important to the Philharmonia's development was Herbert von Karajan, who was passed the baton from Toscanini. Karajan praised the ensemble's 'exceptional qualities of tone, aristocracy, and vitality'. The Philharmonia's first official principal conductor was Otto Klemperer in the late 1950s, and throughout the rest of the 20th-century, it was considered the best orchestra in London. Later, Riccardo Muti headed the orchestra for ten years, further solidifying its place as a top orchestra in Europe. The individual talent of the Philharmonia's musicians cannot be understated; after all, its principal horn for several years was Dennis Brain - one of the greatest horn players of all time.
The Philharmonia has recorded everything from symphonic music and opera to movie soundtracks and modern music and is known for its many recordings. In 1977, its recording of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was included on the Voyager Golden Record, which was sent into space through the Voyager program.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 - Otto Klemperer
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G - Leonard Bernstein
Verdi: Aida - Riccardo Muti
8. Cleveland Orchestra
Home: Severance Hall
Music Director: Franz Welzer-Möst
The Cleveland Orchestra is the third of the four 'Big 5' American orchestras included on this list, and only just celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2018. The orchestra went through many conductors in the first few years following its inception, including Erich Leinsdorf, whose tenure was short-lived; however, in 1946, the orchestra was taken over by George Szell, who came to Cleveland with the simple goal of making the ensemble 'America's finest' and 'second to none.' The orchestra went on to work with great conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, and Franz Welser-Möst. It remains amongst America's finest, just as Szell had envisioned.
Beethoven: Complete Symphonies - George Szell
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 "The Great" - George Szell
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet - Lorin Maazel
7. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Home: Gasteig Philharmonie
Chief Conductor: Sir Simon Rattle (designated, from 2023)
The only radio orchestra on this list, the BRSO, centered in Munich, is one of Germany's best ensembles. Interestingly, though it has quickly become, in its short history, one of Europe's premier orchestras, the BRSO has never had its own concert hall, performing usually in the Gasteig Philharmonie - which is shared with the Munich Philharmonic - and sometimes in the Herkulessaal in the Munich Residenz. Mariss Jansons, who was the orchestra's chief conductor for 17 years, regularly campaigned for a new concert hall throughout his tenure.
The BRSO, like all orchestras on this list, has had a pretty nifty history of conductors, including Sir Colin Davis, Lorin Maazel, and, of course, Mariss Jansons. These maestri are credited for making the orchestra what it is today. The BRSO's recording of Shostakovich's 13th Symphony received the 2006 Grammy award for Best Orchestral Performance.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 - Mariss Jansons
Bruckner: 10 Symphonies - Lorin Maazel
Beethoven: Violin Concerto - Leonidas Kavakos
6. Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Home: Orchestra Hall
Music Director: Riccardo Muti
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is another member of the 'Big 5' American orchestras. It is known for its annual performances at Illinois's Ravinia Festival and has a history of spectacular conductors. In 1961, following a long string of short-lived music directors, Sir Georg Solti took over the orchestra and remained its music director for over 20 years. During this span, he recorded dozens of works with the orchestra and left behind a great legacy. Solti was a tough act to follow, and yet the standard he set was met by his successors - Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink, and Riccardo Muti - all of whom are all-time greats. Under these great conductors, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has earned an impressive 63 Grammy awards.
Mahler: The Symphonies - Sir Georg Solti
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 - Claudio Abbado
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 - Riccardo Muti
5. London Symphony Orchestra
Home: Barbican Centre
Music Director: Sir Simon Rattle
The LSO is London's oldest orchestra and one of the city's 'Big 4'. The LSO is the most recorded orchestra in the world as well as the most played out of all British orchestras. They are known for having recorded the soundtracks for over 200 movies. For example, the LSO recorded the soundtrack to the 1994 hit film Immortal Beloved under the baton of Sir Georg Solti, as well as the soundtracks to the Star Wars saga and Harry Potter films. A large part of the reason why the LSO is so special is that it is self-governing - its musicians select the conductors with whom they want to work. The LSO is most commonly associated with Sir Colin Davis and Valery Gergiev.
Star Wars Soundtrack - John Williams
Raiders of the Lost Ark Soundtrack - John Williams
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring - Sir Simon Rattle
4. Staatskapelle Dresden
Home: Semperoper Dresden
Principal Conductor: Christian Thielemann
One of the world's oldest orchestras, the Staatskapelle Dresden might be the perfect combination of rich history, musical talent, and unique sound. The orchestra has an almost chamber-music-like quality to its sound that has been preserved by its musicians for centuries - a sound that is almost instantly recognizable if you've heard it enough. The Staatskapelle Dresden performs in the Semperoper Dresden, which also serves as an opera house and has pristine acoustics.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 - Christian Thielemann
Beethoven: Complete Symphonies - Herbert Blomstedt
Beethoven: The Piano Concertos (András Schiff) - Bernard Haitink
3. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Home: Royal Concertgebouw
Principal Conductor: (currently vacant)
In 2010, Gramophone, supported by a panel of music critics, ranked the Concertgebouw Orchestra as the best in the world. The late great Mariss Jansons described its sound as 'so profound, so deep, so noble ... unique', and attributed its beauty to the 'musical intelligence' of its players, which, he added, makes the orchestra 'stand out.'
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra musicians have been a fortunate bunch, going from conducting god Bernard Haitink from 1961 to 1988, to Riccardo Chailly, and then to Mariss Jansons as their leader. Despite controversy involving Daniele Gatti, the orchestra's most recent principal conductor who was forced to step down in 2018 due to alleged inappropriate behavior, the Concertgebouw’s place as a top orchestra in the world is firmly set in stone.
Mahler: The Symphonies and Song Cycles - Bernard Haitink
Brahms: The Symphonies - Riccardo Chailly
Strauss: An Alpine Symphony - Mariss Jansons
2. Berlin Philharmonic
Home: Berliner Philharmonie
Principal Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Part of the reason why the Berlin Philharmonic is amongst the greatest in the world is its history of conductors. In its first hundred years of existence, the Berlin Philharmonic's chief conductors included Wilhelm Furtwängler, Sergiu Celibidache, and the great romantic composer Richard Strauss. Since 1954 the orchestra has only had four principal conductors: Herbert von Karajan, who headed the orchestra for over 30 years and is responsible for the majority of its recordings; Claudio Abbado; Simon Rattle; and now Kirill Petrenko. What all of these conductors have in common is that they are considered some of the best to ever lift a baton. The Berlin Philharmonic‘s deep history of conductors led to the selection of exclusively elite musicians, which is the reason for its spectacular sound.
The Berliner Philharmonie, famous for being built similar to an arena, with the orchestra in the center and the audience surrounding it, is home to unparalleled acoustics. This makes for what the great maestro and conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Sergiu Celibidache called 'transcendental experiences' in the concert hall. One does not need to visit the Philharmonie, however, to enjoy the beauty of its orchestra. In 2008, under Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic released the Digital Concert Hall, on which it posts videos of former concerts and streams live performances. The Digital Concert Hall was incredibly useful to classical music fans during the COVID-19 pandemic and is part of the Berlin Philharmonic's mission to make classical music more accessible and popular across the world.
Beethoven: The 9 Symphonies - Herbert von Karajan
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem - Simon Rattle
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" - Kirill Petrenko
1. Vienna Philharmonic
Home: Musikverein Wien
Undoubtedly the finest orchestra in the world, the Vienna Philharmonic is self-governed and has never had a principal conductor. Rather than elect a chief maestro, the orchestra chooses which conductors to invite on a concert-by-concert basis, and its members decide as a group whether or not to invite them back. For this reason, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic is considered one of the greatest honors a conductor can have. Some of the orchestra's concerts are televised globally, such as the infamous New Year's Concert - whose conductor is always one of the orchestra's personal favorites - and the Summer Night's Concert at Schönnbrun Palace. The conductors most commonly associated with the Vienna Philharmonic are Herbert von Karajan, Lorin Maazel, and Riccardo Muti - but all great conductors worked with the orchestra at some point in their careers.
The Vienna Philharmonic is known for its unique 'Viennese sound'. This sound is achieved due to the very selective entry process that ensures that all admitted musicians play with the same style. To enter the prestigious orchestra, musicians are required to play for the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera for a minimum of three years and then go through numerous trials and tests.
In a 2022 concert at the orchestra's famous home - the Musikverein Wien - Daniel Barenboim, the conductor scheduled for the performance, was unable to conduct due to illness. Rather than cancel the concert or perform under a different conductor, the orchestra played a challenging all-Mozart program that included two symphonies without a conductor - and it was spotless. Few, if any, orchestras can do this, and the Vienna Philharmonic is one of them.
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Georg Solti (1965)
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7 - Carlos Kleiber (1976)
*Mahler: Symphony No. 5 - Leonard Bernstein (1987)
*Vienna Philharmonic concertmaster Volkhard Steude noted that this recording made him 'fall in love with the orchestra'
All these orchestras and many more have a case to be number one and, as I mentioned above, you can't go wrong with any of them. In other words, you could arrange this list however you please and I couldn't object. As always, leave a comment down below!