The World's Best Orchestras

A Look at 20 Leading Symphony Orchestras

In 2008, Gramophone, one of the world's most respected classical music publications since its founding in 1923, took on the monumental task of ranking the world's best orchestras. 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 omissions, 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.

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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

The Royal Concertgebouw has been performing classical music since 1888. The orchestra has a unique sound, largely in part to the fact that it has only had seven 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. Daniele Gatti assumed the role of chief conductor for the 2016-17 season. He succeeded Mariss Jansons, who was chief conductor at the time of this ranking. More »

Founded in 1882, the Berlin Philharmonic has had 10 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. More »

The Vienna Philharmonic is a very popular orchestra with 6- and 13-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. More »

Since its founding in 1904, the LSO has quickly become one of the world's 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." More »

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 "Big 5" American orchestras, Daniel Barenboim lead the orchestra at the time of this ranking. It is now under the baton of renowned conductor Riccardo Muti. More »

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. More »

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 "Big 5" orchestras, has rightfully earned their inclusion within this list. More »

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 resides in the abstract Walt Disney Concert Hall, where they have been led by conductor Gustavo Dudamel since 2005. More »

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. More »

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. It is led by Christian Thielemann, principal conductor since 2015. More »

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Boston Symphony Orchestra

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). They have been led by music director Andris Nelsons since 2014, who is also music director-designate for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

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 is led by Alan Gilbert, who assumed the role of music director in 2009. Gilbert has said he will step down at the end of the 2017 season. Perhaps the best-known person to lead the New York Philharmonic is Leonard Bernstein, who conducted from 1958 to 1969. More »

Established in 1911, the San Francisco Symphony, known for its remarkable Mahler recordings, has been led by Michael Tilson Thomas since 1995. Thomas is the longest-tenured music director among the major American orchestras. More »

The Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra is one of Russia's oldest companies. Currently, the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra is led by artistic and general director Valery Gergiev, where he has served since 1988. More »

A 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. The orchestra is led by its founder and artistic director, Mikhail Pletnev. More »

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. More »

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. It is led by music director-designate Andris Nelsons, who also is music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. More »

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra performs nearly every day of the week during the opera season. The Met, known for its superb opera stars, needs to have an equally impressive roster of talented instrumentalists. The orchestra is led by principal conductor Fabio Luisi, who has held that post since 2011, and music director emeritus James Levine. More »

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. Saito, a teacher to both Ozawa and Akiyama, helped found one of Japan's leading schools of music, the Toho Gakuen School. More »

Founded in 1896, Gustav Mahler conducted the premiere 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. Its chief conductor and music director, Jiří Bělohlávek, died in May 2017, and a successor had not been named as of June 2017. More »