Who are the Big Five orchestras in the USA?
Jeremy Pound explores the history of USA's Big Five orchestras - and why they are known as the Big Five
The US is awash with fine professional symphony orchestras, from the likes of LA Philharmonic in the west and the Dallas Symphony in the south to the Minnesota Orchestra in the north and Washington’s National Symphony in the east.
Many have valid claims to be among the country’s best – in terms of wealth, popularity and, of course, sheer ability – but there is one particular group that will forever be known as the ‘Big Five’.
It would take a brave person indeed to insist that these five enjoy some sort of pre-eminence that is forever set in stone, but history has granted them membership of this elite club – the term was first applied in the 1950s, when radio broadcasts and commercial recordings were growing in popularity, and simply stuck. So, who are the ‘Big Five’ in question?
Who are the Big Five orchestras?
New York Philharmonic
Founded in 1842, the New York Philharmonic is, in fact, older than all of Britain’s professional symphony orchestras except the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
It’s list of music directors (chief conductors) over the years is uniquely eye-catching – these include Gustav Mahler, who held the post briefly before his death in 1911, the Italian Arturo Toscanini (1928-36), Britain’s John Barbirolli (1936-41) and America’s own Leonard Bernstein, whose tenure from 1958-69 saw the orchestra propelled firmly into the television age.
Though things have been a little lower key under the two most recent incumbents, Alan Gilbert and Jaap van Zweden, the arrival of Venezuelan maestro Gustavo Dudamel from the LA Phil in 2026 should bring new pizzazz to the orchestra’s Manhattan home, the 2,200-seat David Geffen Hall.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
The second oldest of the Big Five, the Boston Symphony dates back to 1881. One name in particular stands out among its list of music directors: Serge Koussevitzky (one of the best Russian conductors ever), a former double-bassist who, in post from 1924-49, took the orchestra to new heights of excellence and, in 1926, conducted it in the first ever concert to be broadcast live on radio, with over a million people tuning in.
After Koussevitzky, the good work was carried on by Charles Munch and Erich Leinsdorf, who led the BSO through the golden age of recording. The BSO’s home patch is Boston’s 2,625-seat Symphony Hall, opened in 1900, though the orchestra also hosts a famous summer festival at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts. Its current music director is the gregarious Latvian Andris Nelsons.
We named the Boston Symphony Orchestra one of the best orchestras in the world
Between them, conductors Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy were music directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra for an astonishing 68 years, serving from 1912-38 and 1936-80 respectively (holding the post jointly for two years). After Stokowski developed the famously rich ‘Philadelphia Sound’ – much beloved by Rachmaninov, who wrote his Third Symphony for the ‘Fabulous Philadelphians’ – Ormandy ensured that it was committed to posterity with a string of acclaimed recordings.
Life hasn’t been all plain-sailing, however. While the orchestra’s groundbreaking tour to the People’s Republic of China in 1973 was a great success, 2011 would see it file for bankruptcy, followed in 2016 by a players’ strike. Founded in 1900, the orchestra is based at the city’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and its current music director is the Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
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Chicago Symphony Orchestra
It wasn’t always the Big Five. Initially, there was just a Big Three, and then Chicago and Cleveland (below) joined the party. Dating back to 1891, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was briefly named the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, after its founding music director, before adopting its current name in 1913.
Thomas’s successor, the German Frederick Stock, successfully steered the CSO for nearly 40 years in the first half of the 20th century, before two Hungarian-born conductors, Fritz Reiner (1953-62) and Georg Solti (1969-91) thrust it into the spotlight through broadcasts, studio recordings and tours beyond the US – both men achieved the highest standards of playing through infamously terrifying, if effective, means. Since 2010, the CSO has been in the much gentler hands of Italian music director Riccardo Muti and, when not at its Orchestra Hall home, also plays at the summer Ravinia Festival.
The youngest of the Big Five, the Cleveland Orchestra was founded in 1918. Like Chicago, it can attribute much of its success to an authoritarian Hungarian – George Szell, who on taking up the post of music director in 1946, predicted that his orchestra would soon be ranked alongside the very best.
He was as good as his word, creating a crack ensemble through a highly disciplinarian approach that nonetheless earned him great respect and even affection among his players. While Szell’s 34-year reign beats all others, nearly all of the Cleveland Orchestra’s music directors have bedded in for a lengthy spell – there have been only seven in total over the orchestra’s 105 years in existence. The current incumbent at Cleveland’s Severance Hall is the Austrian Franz Welser-Möst, who has been there since 2002.
Main image: John William conducting the New York Philharmonic © Getty images
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.