America’s Symphony Orchestras 2013 by Curtis Rittenhouse

By on April 15, 2013

orch1Years ago musical critics referred to the Big Five orchestras in the US.  They were the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Those days are long gone. Today you would be hard-pressed to confine a list of outstanding orchestras in the US to a dozen.

Those Big Five Orchestras no doubt got some of their reputations from commanding musical directors who at one point stood on their podiums with international reputations and, more importantly, high volume recording contracts. The Boston had Serge Koussevitsky, The New York had Toscanini and then the irrepressible Leonard Bernstein. The Cleveland had the feared and respected George Szell, the Chicago had Fritz Reiner and later Georg Solti, and the Philadelphia had Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy and made many recordings which still circulate today.

stokiThe day of the music-director tyrant has gone. Reiner, Szell, Rodzinski and Toscanini set a style that orchestra players and managers no longer tolerate. Today’s orchestra directors are far nicer people, and get their results with persuasion not terror. Tantrums, throwing things, withering stares, hurling insults or packing a gun, as Rodzinski who briefly let Chicago, New York and Cleveland is reputed to have done are passé.

This country is aflood with talented conductors, if the organization can be kept afloat finacially. One could argue that in spite of the economy we are experiencing a second golden age of accomplishment in this country’s symphony orchestras.

Let’s look at who is where:


New York                                        the popular Alan Gilbert

Boston                                             seeking a successor to the ailing James Levine

Philadelphia                                    Yannick Nezet-Seguin

Baltimore                                         Marin Alsop

Washington DC                               Christoph Eshenbach

Atlanta                                             Robert Spano

St. Louis                                           David Robertson

Pittsburgh                                        Manfred Honeck

Buffalo                                              Jo Ann Falleta

Cleveland                                          Franz Welser-Most

Cincinnati                                         Louis Langrée

Indianapolis                                      Krzysztof Urbanski

Chicago                                              Riccardo Muti

Detroit                                               the ubiquitous Leonard Slatkin

Milwaukee                                         the veteran Edo de Waart

Minnesota                                          Osmo Vänskä

Dallas                                                  Jaap  van Zweden

Houston                                              Hans Graf

Los Angeles                                         Gustavo Dudamel

San Francisco                                     Michael Tilson thomas

Seattle                                                  Ludovic Morlot


rodzinskifalletaThis is an embarrassment of riches. I doubt there is a ringer in the bunch. And this excludes some interesting talent like Miguel Harth-Bedoya in Fort Worth, Texas Carlos Kalmar in Portland, Oregon and the grand master of unusual and fascinating programming, Leon Botstein at the head of the intermittent American Symphony Orchestra.

And I should not fail to mention the accomplished trio to our north, Peter Oundjian in Toronto, Kent Nagano in Montreal and the witty Bramwell Tovey in Vancouver who is much in demand everywhere each summer. All are well worth hearing, and leading their orchestras to historic high points.

Slatkin, Muti, Tilson Thomas and de Waart are the senior members here. It is unnerving to think of limit-testing Tilson Thomas as an older statesmen, but he is. The once fiery Riccardo Muti still in great demand everywhere in spite of recent health problems. He is perhaps the one true throwback to the postwar era of dictators of the baton, albeit a far mellower version.


Curtis Rittenhouse


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