To pick just ten of the world’s best orchestras is much easier said than done. In terms of sound quality, technical ability and sheer musicality, the following orchestras are unparalleled in their brilliance. That said, what does distinguish these orchestras from one another is their ethos and approach to the repertoire, their musical direction and their core performance values. At the risk of using every superlative in the dictionary here’s our guide to the ten greatest orchestras in the world.
The Vienna Philharmonic
The prestigious Vienna Philharmonic is a name synonymous to the pomp, pageantry and grandeur of the orchestral tradition. Unfailingly faithful to the rich history of Western classical music, the Vienna Phil have, throughout their 177-year history, been applauded by the likes of Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler. They are perhaps best known for their New Year’s Concert, broadcast globally on 1 January each year, featuring note-perfect, rousing renditions of the Johann Strauss classics.
The Berlin Philharmonic
Another of the old-school greats, the formidable Berlin Phil gave its first performance in 1882. The orchestra’s history has always been tied up with its chief conductors who have included Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert Von Karajan, Claudio Abbado and Sir Simon Rattle. This mighty orchestra is the epitome of refinement and grandiosity. Their performance style is defined by enormous energy, zest and flair, backed up by outstanding technical agility. A veritable thrill to listen to, the Berlin Phil is a force to be reckoned with and one of the greatest orchestras in the world.
The London Symphony Orchestra
The LSO is widely recognised as the world’s leading soundtrack orchestra. The orchestra is known for its breathtaking film score recordings, particularly for the Star Wars franchise, scored by the legendary composer John Williams, and, most recently, for The Shape Of Water in 2017. The LSO also featured in the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony alongside Rowan Atkinson, with an estimated global audience of a massive 900 million.
The LA Philharmonic
One hundred years ago the Los Angeles Philharmonic was founded as LA’s first permanent symphony orchestra. A century later, the LA Phil is recognised as one of the world’s outstanding orchestras, leading the way in groundbreaking programming. With creative direction currently from Gustav Dudamel the LA Phil are chiefly renowned their extensive repertoire, from their captivating interpretations of Schumann, Bernstein, and Prokofiev, to their delves into pop music. Perhaps one of the more forward-thinking orchestras, the LA Phil frequently dabble in other musical genres. Their 2018 concert LA Phil 100 At The Hollywood Bowl featured Dudamel, Katy Perry and Herbie Hancock – only the LA Phil could bring together such diverse megastars in a single event and still produce spectacular, world-class music.
The Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment
The OAE, based in London, are pioneers and a breath of fresh air in the global orchestral scene. With no principal conductor, the orchestra act democratically by electing principal players and collaborating with guest conductors. Authenticity is at the heart of everything the OAE do, with an emphasis on period-specific instruments and specialising in baroque and classical repertoire. Despite this adherence to historically informed performance, the OAE concert series The Night Shift continues to refute the rules and regulations of the tradition, but, as they argue, “Why shouldn’t you enjoy Beethoven in a venue with a decent bar?”
The Royal Concertgebouw
Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw was established in 1888 and is frequently a favourite with critics. Their unfussy and refined sound is instantly recognisable, particularly in their well-known recordings of Strauss, Mahler and Bruckner. Previous conductors of this well-oiled musical machine include Bernard Haitink and Mariss Jansons. Don’t let their adherence to formality fool you: their “tradition and renewal” ethos keeps the RCO at the cutting edge of orchestral ingenuity. Indeed, as part of their Horizon initiative, the orchestra regularly premiers newly commissioned works from the 21st Century.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the greatest orchestras in the world and has a prolific output, performing over 100 epic concerts each year. They boast a whopping 62 Grammy Awards for their recordings, including several accolades for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Classical Album. Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim held the position of musical director from 1991 to 2006, only to return somewhat controversially just last year.
The Aurora Orchestra
Perhaps a relatively-unknown name on the global orchestral scene. Still in its infancy, the Aurora Orchestra was established by a group of students in London in 2005. Their USP is their apparent disapproval of sheet music: they regularly perform whole symphonies from memory. The sheer quality of their exquisite performance makes this orchestra all the more remarkable and worthy of recognition.
The New York Philharmonic
The New York Phil claims to be the longest-running orchestra in the states, having been founded in 1842. Its most famous association is with Leonard Bernstein, a partnership which lasted 47 years and 1,244 performances. Since his death, in 1990, the orchestra traditionally perform Bernstein’s Candide overture conductor-less in a touching tribute.
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Established in 1949, the BRSO frequently stun with technically-perfect performances that easily place them among the world’s greatest orchestras. Now producing recordings under its own label, the orchestra are renowned for their glorious and technicoloured performances of staple repertoire pieces. To borrow a phrase once used by their chief conductor Mariss Jansons, the BRSO is ostensibly the “Rolls Royce” of orchestras.