Definitively ranking philharmonic orchestras (or any other type of musical group, for that matter) is an impossible task. Each and every listener will have a unique experience while listening to a particular performance from any given philharmonic orchestra, and therefore each listener will have a different opinion. Personal musical and aesthetic taste also plays a role. However, there are certainly some philharmonic orchestras that stand out from the pack, whose excellence no one can deny. Here are ten, in no particular order, that are more than worth listening to.
NY Philharmonic – This orchestra has been wowing audiences for the past 6 years under the baton of Lorin Maazel. This is my hometown philharmonic, and they seem to get better every time I hear them. Alan Gilbert takes the reins in 2009 – will the orchestra continue to impress?
Cleveland Orchestra – George Szell brought this orchestra to the forefront during his 24 year tenure (1946-1970). Though Cleveland is not one of the biggest cities in the US, the orchestra attracts some of the finest players and conductors from all over the world.
Berliner Philharmoniker – This award winning philharmonic orchestra was led by the legendary Herbert von Karajan for an astonishing 35 years, from 1954-1989. The current conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, is also held in high regard. However, the orchestra will be replacing Artistic Director Pamela Rosenberg in 2010.
Wiener Philharmoniker – Since 1933, this philharmonic orchestra has relied solely on guest conductors rather than employing a single chief conductor, which makes its consistent high quality all the more remarkable. It has often been cited as Europe’s finest.
National Symphony Orchestra, Washington DC – Though this orchestra may not make anyone else’s top 10 list, it’s a personal favorite, due largely to conductor Leonard Slatkin. I’ve never seen anyone fire up an orchestra the way he can. He will be sorely missed when he retires at the end of this year.
Boston Symphony Orchestra – Another personal favorite, although Boston is widely regarded as one of the finest symphonies in the world. It was led by the incredible Seiji Ozawa until 2002, at which time the incomparable James Levine took over – who could ask for anything more?
Philadelphia Orchestra – This American powerhouse is well known for recordings and has always managed to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to technology. Charles Dutoit will be taking over in 2008.
Israel Philharmonic – With legends like Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta at the helm, how could this NOT be one of the great philharmonic orchestras of the world?
Chicago Symphony – Recordings by the Chicago Symphony have won 58 Grammy awards – need I say more?
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam – Since its inception in 1888, this philharmonic orchestra has had only 6 chief conductors, which contributes to its consistent, distinctive sound.