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The World's Best Orchestras

A Look at 20 Leading Symphony Orchestras

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In 2008, Gramophone (one of world's most respected classical music publications since its founding in 1923) took on the monumental task of ranking the world's best orchestras (see the full story here). With a panel composed of eleven renowned music critics from the United States, France, Austria, United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Korea, Gramophone only ranked orchestras of similar nature: modern romantic symphonies, or those known for their Mahlers, Wagners, Verdis, Strausses, and Dvoraks. Symphony orchestras that only specialize in a certain type of music like baroque or renaissance music were omitted. Even with the omissions, the field was left wide open, and the eleven judges had to analyze dozens and dozens of orchestras on an individual basis. It's hard enough for two people to agree upon a top pick list, let alone eleven, so we can assume that the list, though still subjective, can be trusted. Even if you don't agree with the ranking (or feel some orchestras like the Philadelphia Orchestra were missing in action), many would agree that the orchestras on the list are definitely deserving.

1. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam

Conductor's hands
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Starting in 1888, the Royal Concertgebouw has been performing classical music for over 120 years. At the time of this ranking, Mariss Jansons was chief conductor. Jansons was elected to the position in 2004, and still remains to this day. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has a very unique sound, largely in part to the fact that it has only had six chief conductors since its establishment. And with a collection of nearly a thousand recordings, it's easy to see why this orchestra takes its position at the top.

2. Berlin Philharmonic

Founded in 1882, the Berlin Philharmonic has had ten principal conductors, with its latest being Sir Simon Rattle since 2002. It's no surprise to see the Berlin Philharmonic in this position, especially since under Rattle, the orchestra has won a handful of BRIT Awards, Grammys, Gramophone Awards, and more.

3. Vienna Philharmonic

The Vienna Philharmonic is a very popular orchestra with six and thirteen year waiting lists for its weekday and weekend subscription tickets. And with one of the world's best concert halls, and a grueling audition process for its musicians, it's not hard to understand why it is so well liked and highly regarded.

4. London Symphony Orchestra

Since its founding in 1904, the LSO has quickly become one of the worlds most well-known orchestras; in part due to their extensive involvement in original film scores like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Harry Potter, Braveheart, and The Queen.

5. Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Coming in at number five on the list, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's highly regarded brass section boosted them above all the United States leading orchestras. Known as one of the U.S.'s "Big 5" orchestras, Daniel Barenboim lead the orchestra at the time of this ranking. It is now under the baton of renowned conductor, Riccardo Muti.

6. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Founded in 1949, this relatively young orchestra has had only five chief conductors: Eugen Jochum (1949–1960), Rafael Kubelík (1961–1979), Sir Colin Davis (1983–1992), Lorin Maazel (1993–2002), and Mariss Jansons (2003–present). Because they are a radio orchestra, every nuance can be picked up by the microphones; the musicians must be highly technical and emphatic for every note on the page.

7. Cleveland Orchestra

Franz Welser-Möst has been leading the Cleveland Orchestra since 2002. With their extensive touring across the U.S. and abroad, their long-term relationships with several leading orchestras, and Welser-Möst's ongoing reinvention and inspiring interpretations of popular classical music, the Cleveland Orchestra, another of the U.S.'s "Big 5" orchestras, has rightfully earned their inclusion within this list.

8. Los Angeles Philharmonic

The Los Angeles Philharmonic was founded in 1919. Their "forward-thinking" interpretations and their ability to remold and remodel their performances at the whim of the conductor, gives this orchestra a unique advantage. The orchestra now resides in the abstract Walt Disney Concert Hall.

9. Budapest Festival Orchestra

This "baby" orchestra was founded in 1983, but despite its young age, has become a leading world orchestra. Iván Fischer, the orchestra’s founder and music director, set out to create an orchestra that would influence and invigorate the musical life and culture of Hungary - and that he did.

10. Dresden Staatskapelle

Unlike the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle has been performing for over 450 years! The orchestra has a rich and varied history, as well as a beautiful concert hall, which lends to the orchestra's unique sound.

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