There has been a recent buzz about the list of the world’s top symphonies that Gramophone has put together. It seems to have taken many classical music enthusiasts by surprise that the top American orchestra (listed as number five) is the Chicago Symphony. The Cleveland Orchestra is listed as number seven.
The story and complete listings can be found via NPR here.
The rankings were determined after polling music critics from the United States, Europe and Asia who were asked to list their top 20 orchestras. James Inverne, editor for U.S. Gramophone suggests that the difference between Chicago and the rest of the U.S. Symphonies was their distinct sound – particularly the strength of the brass. Others have also credited Chicago with their excellent financial status, which is a rarity in most orchestras.
In my own research (that I have of about before, if only briefly) concerning the recent repertoire of the top American orchestras, the Chicago Symphony has stood out quite clearly from the rest. In fact, Chicago has received a gold star in my book by being the orchestra with the best track record for performing works by women composers – a total of 13 in the past 7 seasons, including works by Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger, as well as commissioned works from Augusta Read Thomas (who was composer in residence from 1997-2006) and Melinda Wagner. This is a phenomenal record considering that most of the other ensembles I have looked at only report performing half the number of works by women, and of they consist almost exclusively of works written in the very recent past.
The Cleveland Orchestra, which was listed as number seven in the list of top 20, ranks just behind Chicago in the number of works by women performed in their recent seasons, totaling 10, though all recent compositions.
Though the factors that have led to the rankings appear to be largely subjective to personal opinion by music critics, I would like to think that these critics (at least in the United States) were also appreciative of varied repertoire. Even if it is only a happy coincidence, it is certainly worth noting.