The World's Best Orchestras

A Look at 20 Leading Symphony Orchestras

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 (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. Despite the many ommisions, the field was left wide open and the eleven judges had to analyze dozens upon dozens of orchestras one by one. 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 in nature, can be trusted. Even if you don't agree with the ranking or the lack of certain orchestras, many would agree that the orchestras on the list are definitely deserving of their inclusion.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam

Mariss Jansons leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the program of Strauss and Bruckner at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, February 14, 2013. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Symphony Hall in Boston
Symphony Hall in Boston.

The third "Big 5" member on the list is the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Founded in 1881, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has spent most of its life in the Boston Symphony Hall, which was modeled after Vienna's Musikverein. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was the first orchestra to perform live on radio (NBC, 1926). At the time of this listing, renowned conducter, James Levine lead the orchestra.

New York Philharmonic

The fourth "Big 5" on the list, the New York Philharmonic is USA's oldest orchestra; it was founded in 1842. With over a dozen Grammy awards under its belt, the orchestra was lead by Lorin Maazel from 2002-2009. Currently, the NY Philharmonic is lead by Alan Gilbert.

San Francisco Symphony

Established in 1911, the San Francisco Symphony, known for its remarkable Mahler recordings, has been lead by Michael Tilson Thomas since 1995, and is now the longest-tenured music director at any major American orchestra.

Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra

The Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra is one of Russia's oldest companies. Currently, the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra is lead by artistic and general director, Valery Gergiev.

Russian National Orchestra

Another young orchestra, The Russian National Orchestra was founded in 1990. With over 75 recordings and over a dozen awards, it has quickly gained popularity and world recognition.

Leningrad Philharmonic

The oldest Russian orchestra, the Leningrad Philharmonic, formally known as the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, was founded in 1882. Under the baton of Yuri Temirkanov, the orchestra tours extensively.

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Tracing back to 1741, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra has been officially performing in the Gewandhaus concert hall since 1781. With an impressive history of past conductors including Felix Mendelssohn, the orchestra has been performing fantastic classical music for over 250 years.

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

Under the leadership of James Levine since 1991, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra performs nearly every day of the week during opera season. The Met, known for its superb opera stars, needs to have an equally impressive roster of talented instrumentalists.

Saito Kinen Orchestra

Founded in 1984, by famed conductors, Seiji Ozawa and Kazuyoshi Akiyama, The Saito Kinen Orchestra was organized to perform a series of special concerts commemorating the 10th anniversary of Hideo Saito's death. Professor Saito, a teacher to both Ozawa and Akiyama, helped found one of Japan's leading schools of music, the Toho Gakuen School.

Czech Philharmonic

Founded in 1896, Gustav Mahler conducted the premier of his 7th symphony with the Czech Philharmonic in 1908. Since its creation, the orchestra has won a variety of awards, as well as earning nominations including a Grammy in 2005.