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Big Five (orchestras)

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Title: Big Five (orchestras)  
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Subject: Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra
Collection: American Orchestras
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Big Five (orchestras)

The Big Five orchestras of the United States are the five symphony orchestras that led the field in "musical excellence, calibre of musicianship, total contract weeks, weekly basic wages, recording guarantees, and paid vacations"[1] when the term gained currency in the late 1950s and for some years afterwards.[2] In order of foundation, they were:[3]


  • Origins 1
  • Modern use 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5


The term "Big Five" was coined around the time that long-playing recordings became available, regular orchestral radio broadcasts were expanding, and the five orchestras that make up the group had annual concert series in New York City. In the early 20th century, people talked about the "Major Seven" U.S. orchestras. By mid-century, with recordings and radio broadcasts dominated by Fritz Reiner at this time saw the "Big Three" become the "Big Five".[9]

Modern use

People still refer to the "Big Five", but many believe the classification to be outdated.[10] Several critics have suggested that the top echelon is expanded, including Michael Walsh in Time, 1983;[3] Tim Page in Newsday, 1990;[11] and Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, 2005.[12] Among the orchestras proposed for inclusion are the Los Angeles Philharmonic,[12] the San Francisco Symphony,[12] the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra,[13] the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra,[14] the Houston Symphony,[14] the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra,[15] the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington, D.C.),[15] the Minnesota Orchestra (Minneapolis),[16] and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.[17]

Seven American orchestras were numbered among the world's top twenty in a 2008 critics' poll by Gramophone. They were, in rank order, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (5th), the Cleveland Orchestra (7th), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (8th), the Boston Symphony Orchestra (11th), the New York Philharmonic (12th), the San Francisco Symphony (13th), and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (New York City) (18th).[18]

In the 21st century, some observers of American orchestras suggest that the "Big Five" designation is no longer meaningful. Gary Hanson, executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra, commented in 2013 that an orchestra's reputation was once an important factor in its "ability to compete for talent", meaning that "there was a direct relationship between reputation and quality."[10] Greater geographic mobility of musicians, the rarity of major orchestral recording contracts, and the existence of major year-round orchestras in more American cities have reduced the importance of the prestige that was once associated with the Big Five. A New York Times article suggested that "climate and cost of living are as likely to figure in a musician’s choice of employer as an orchestra’s historic renown."[10] Additionally, the availability of a large number of talented young musicians is described as a "leveling factor" that enhances the quality of all American orchestras.[10]

See also


  1. ^ Robert R. Faulkiner, "Career Concerns and Mobility Motivations of Orchestra Musicians", The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer, 1973), p. 336. Archived at JSTOR. Retrieved 28 March 2012. Subscription required.
  2. ^ Fred Kirshnit, "New York Drops Off the List of 'Big Five' Orchestras", The New York Sun, 5 December 2006. Retrieved 18 July 2010.
  3. ^ a b Michael Walsh, Lee Griggs, James Shepherd, "Music: Which U.S. Orchestras Are Best?" Time, April 25, 1983. Retrieved 18 July 2010.
  4. ^ History of the New York Philharmonic (official website). Retrieved 18 July 2010.
  5. ^ History of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (official website). Retrieved 18 July 2010.
  6. ^ History of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (official website). Retrieved 28 March 2012.
  7. ^ History of the Philadelphia Orchestra (official website). Retrieved 18 July 2010.
  8. ^ History of the Cleveland Orchestra (official website). Retrieved 18 July 2010.
  9. ^ Wayne Lee Gay, "Classical's `Big Five' are on top again", San Diego Union-Tribune, May 24, 2003, p. E6.
  10. ^ a b c d Oestreich, James R. (June 14, 2013). "The Big Five Orchestras No Longer Add Up". New York Times. 
  11. ^ Tim Page, "Now Hear This. Why do the so-called Big Five stand out from all other U.S. orchestras?" Newsday, 15 April 1990, p. 10. Abstract retrieved 18 July 2010.
  12. ^ a b c Mark Swed, "Time to get on the stick", Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2005. Retrieved 18 July 2010.
  13. ^ Mary Ann Glynn, "Maestro or Manager?" in Joseph Lampel, Jamal Shamsie, Theresa K. Lant (eds.), The business of culture (Routledge, 2006), p. 65. ISBN 0-8058-5582-3.
  14. ^ a b "Orchestras: The Elite Eleven", Time, 8 April 1966. Retrieved 16 April 2010. Subscription required.
  15. ^ a b Joshua Kosman, "New Music for a New Century", The Arts Today, USIA, Vol. 3., No. 1 (June 2008), p. 25. ISBN 1-4289-6734-6.
  16. ^ "Orchestras: Big Five Plus One?" Time, 10 November 1967. Retrieved 18 July 2010. Subscription required.
  17. ^ Richard Dyer, "The Big 5 orchestras: Do they still reign supreme?" The Boston Globe, 29 August 1993. Retrieved 18 July 2010. (subscription required)
  18. ^ "The World's Greatest Orchestras", Gramophone, December 2008. Retrieved 28 March 2012.

Further reading

  • Lebrecht, Norman, "Bucks Stop Here: The Biggest Need Not Be the Best", La Scena Musicale, 5 July 2000.
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