Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Here is a link to an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about what makes an orchestra great: .  Its a thoughtful piece, but seems weighted toward those factors that would appear to make the hometown orchestra "great."  Certainly the Cleveland Orchestra is among the country's best, there is no dispute about that.  But there are some considerations that are given short-shrift in the article.  For example, community response is an important factor and it can include financial support, attendance, and audience satisfaction.  To me, the last factor of audience satisfaction is very important.  Are the orchestra's performances perceived by patrons to be of high quality, musically satisfying, and of high value?  What may be a wonderful performance for the local community may not be perceived by outsiders as all that.  But do the outsiders' views really matter that much?  For example, Atlanta Symphony audiences are indiscriminate in giving standing ovations after nearly every soloist has performed. They love every choral work.  They are highly complimentary of what they hear.  Whether these performances are worthy of such adoration probably doesn't matter a lot if the hometown crowd in pleased.  It is important, however, that a satisfied audience results in attendance and donations.  Yet no matter local satisfaction, another mark of greatness might be if  an orchestra in demand elsewhere.  In other words, the outsiders' view can affect if an orchestra will tour (it also assumes that a very expensive tour can be financed).  Touring can bring glory to an orchestra, and it can bring important attention to its host city.  Whether a symphony's local audience cares much about touring is debatable, but they probably like to be associated with an organization that is in demand elsewhere and garners great reviews in other cities. Here is an interesting article from the Washington Post about the possible benefits of a National Symphony Orchestra tour of South America:  I am not sure the article makes a good case for touring but it does highlight some hoped-for benefits, e.g., partnering with industry, better playing upon return, but those are not necessarily compelling arguments.  Its also noteworthy that only a few of  this country's major orchestras regularly tour internationally, e.g., Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.  Finally recordings used to be a mark of great orchestras.  Decades ago when many orchestras recorded, there were reviews that heap praise or scorn on orchestras and their leaders.  This was a way to ferret out the good from the great. Today, few American orchestras record because of prohibitive costs.  Its much cheaper to record the Icelandic Symphony than the Cleveland Orchestra, for example.  What was once a revenue stream for orchestras no longer is available.  Atlanta has set up its own record label after the demise of Telarc.  Pittsburgh records for audiophile labels, such as Exton, that charge upwards of $30 for one compact disk.  Finally there are the orchestra rankings done by The Gramophone magazine in the UK.  The list has a decided  European bent, but the with only the Chicago Symphony is rated as the best in the US. A vote on greatness?  If you like that sort of thing. finally, the reputation of the music director can influence views of an orchestra. Some are good, some are no-so- good.  The not-so-good can have a really deleterious effect on an orchestra over time.   The best can inspire great playing.  This, of course, raises the question of how to determine the relative greatness of a music director.  Like beauty, it may be in the eye of the beholder.

So there is no easy answer to "great."  There are different ways to approach the issue of which orchestra is great, but for me, audience reaction may be the best measure.  No applause, no curtain calls- probably not great.  The listener should choose their own measure or simply conclude that it doesn't matter because "I know what I like and I know it when I hear it."

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