Big Five (orchestras)

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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]


The term "Big Five" was coined around the time when 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. By the mid-20th century, with recordings and radio broadcasts dominated by East Coast ensembles, the most prominent orchestras were known as the "Big Three": New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. While this label was still being used in the late 1950s (e.g. Newsweek, February 17, 1958), the growing prestige of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner at this time saw the "Big Three" become the "Big Five".[9]

Modern use[edit]

People still refer to the "Big Five", but many deem the classification outdated.[10] Several critics have suggested that the top echelon be expanded, including Michael Walsh in Time magazine in 1983;[3][11] and Mark Swed in the Los Angeles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 St. Louis Symphony.[17]

Seven American orchestras were numbered among the world's top 20 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, former 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 "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. The New York Times 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[edit]


  1. ^ Robert R. Faulkiner, "Career Concerns and Mobility Motivations of Orchestra Musicians", The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer, 1973), p. 336.
  2. ^ Fred Kirshnit, "New York Drops Off the List of 'Big Five' Orchestras", The New York Sun, December 5, 2006. Retrieved July 18, 2010.[better source needed]
  3. ^ a b Michael Walsh, Lee Griggs, James Shepherd, "Music: Which U.S. Orchestras Are Best?" Time, April 25, 1983. Retrieved July 18, 2010.
  4. ^ History of the New York Philharmonic Archived April 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine (official website). Retrieved July 18, 2010.
  5. ^ History of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (official website). Retrieved July 18, 2010.
  6. ^ History of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (official website). Retrieved March 28, 2012.
  7. ^ History of the Philadelphia Orchestra Archived June 20, 2010, at the Wayback Machine (official website). Retrieved July 18, 2010.
  8. ^ History of the Cleveland Orchestra (official website). Retrieved July 18, 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". The New York Times.
  11. ^ Page, Tim (April 15, 1990). "Now Hear This. Why do the so-called Big Five stand out from all other U.S. orchestras?". Newsday. p. 10. Retrieved July 18, 2010.
  12. ^ a b c Swed, Mark (August 14, 2005). "Time to get on the stick". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 18, 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, April 8, 1966. Retrieved April 16, 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, November 10, 1967. Retrieved July 18, 2010. Subscription required.
  17. ^ Richard Dyer, "The Big 5 orchestras: Do they still reign supreme?" The Boston Globe, August 29, 1993. Retrieved July 18, 2010. (subscription required)
  18. ^ "The World's Greatest Orchestras by Gramophone",, November 2008. Retrieved January 16, 2020.

Further reading[edit]