In an indulgent little piece in today’s NY Sun, Fred Kirshnit reorders the historical construct of the Big Five as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, LA, Chicago, Boston. His thoughs on the NY Phil: 

Not even the best orchestra on the plaza.


Limiting our discussion to the modern era, the local Phil has been deficient for a long time. A pedestrian string sound, a tendency to lose intonation as a piece drags along, an inconsistent trumpet section, and a sometimes frightful set of French horns are just background for an ensemble that often seems to have little investment in its own performances. Add to the ensemble’s frustrating nonchalance a conductor in Lorin Maazel who simply cannot leave a piece alone and the net result is often blaring, leadfooted, and embarrassing. The worst part may be that, on certain evenings, they can still conjure a decent performance. At Avery Fisher, it often seems that attitude is more critical than aptitude.

Well, at least he got some things right.

26 Responses to “Big Five à la Kirshnit”
  1. This post is asinine, his article is completely subjective and anyone willing to use such superlatives obviously has an agenda. The orchestra is a wasted resource; designated to the category of curatorship. So many other items worth discussing and this gets 24 posts?

  2. zeno says:

    Well, then I apologize, Andrew. I word-searched the Sun article for Nagano, and he wasn’t there; but, of course, I now see that he is in fact mentioned. … I don’t understand what Chicago would have to fear in Nagano, if your father’s one Board source is correct.

  3. Andrew says:

    Kirshnit DID say that in his article: “Rumor has it that the very talented Kent Nagano will leave troubled Montreal and settle on Michigan Avenue”.

  4. zeno says:

    …”Nagano is not on Chicago’s short list, or long list, or ANY list. I had my Dad reconfirm this with a member of the Chicago Board this morning.” …

    ummm, Andrew, it was Alex Ross who mentioned that Kent Nagano is being considered by the Chicago Symphony, not Fred K. Alex is in some position to be privy to such music business feelers. … Of course, I was hoping that Kent Nagano would be scooped up by the National Symphony, in Washington, just in time for a Barak Obama Democratic administration.

    I will ask my Dad to check with the Peet’s Coffee corner gurus as to whether Kent Nagano intends to keep his symbolic Berkeley Symphony orchestra post (his first), after his appointment to the Chicago, Philadelphia, or National Symphony. (Alex, what do your sources say — Barenboim or Robertson, for the NYPhil?)

  5. Evan Johnson says:

    What good is a great orchestra if they never play anything truly interesting? I haven’t been to the Cleveland Orchestra in years, great though they are, simply because I don’t need to hear Uchida play and conduct Mozart anymore, or hear anybody do Beethoven.

    Well, yes, but Cleveland has been doing some truly wonderful things lately, relative to most big American orchestras. See Mell Csicsilla’s post above. While Pintscher, Saariaho and Kyburz are not my absolute favorites, they are certainly a far sight more interesting, and far harder to come by, than the new music that gets played by most of the Cleveland O’s peer ensembles.

    (Also looking forward to the Boston SO’s premiere of a new Saariaho cello concerto in the spring…)

  6. john williams says:

    What good is a great orchestra if they never play anything truly interesting? I haven’t been to the Cleveland Orchestra in years, great though they are, simply because I don’t need to hear Uchida play and conduct Mozart anymore, or hear anybody do Beethoven. As for a commitment to living American composers, (or dead ones for that matter) they are as neglectful as most. I just have to stay home with my cds.

    The technical level of orchestras today means that though we may differ about what orchestra qualifies as great, we certainly cannot limit the list to 5.

  7. As someone who listened to the Pittsburgh Symphony regularly for the past two years (and just heard them last night in Carnegie Hall), the notion of them on any sort of “big five” list seems truly laughable — most especially when their principal conductor/artistic advisor Andrew Davis is on the podium. Also having recently heard Cleveland play superbly on various occasions, I would be pretty much impossible to convince that the PSO is anywhere near being in the same league.

  8. Andrew says:

    Kirshnit is simply not knowledgeable about orchestras. This article should never have made it past the editor.

    There are so many misstatements of fact in the article that I had to address some of them on my blog.

    Where is Kirshnit getting these whisperings about Chicago hiring Nagano? Nagano is not on Chicago’s short list, or long list, or ANY list. I had my Dad reconfirm this with a member of the Chicago Board this morning.

    Nagano has never, for one moment, been considered a suitable candidate for Chicago.

  9. I really don’t think that the musicians are ‘overpaid.’ If you take people in any other field (medicine, law, real estate, engineering, etc.) with similar levels of education, skill, and committment you’d find that they’d be making similar or (way) more money.

    I’d love to live in the environment that is NYC or SF, but Lord knows I can’t afford to live there. A NY Philharmonic salary would make it possible.

    I love the Cleveland Orchestra (disclaimer, I’m a guest artist for their education department,) but their new music programming seems to have a more European focus (this year programming including: Saariaho, Pintscher, Kokkonen, Kyburz, Messaien.)

  10. By the way Alex, are you interested in reviewing any of our recordings?


  11. Alex and others,

    Orchestras in the USA have fallen far behind many of their European counterparts, aside from the amount of pay, for many reasons. For more on this subject please read many of Christina Fong’s previous posts …

    … as one of the few orchestral players who can actually get away with writing on such difficult subjects, most of her blogging is centers on her experience as an orchestral player who also happens to perform, promote and record new music as a soloist.


  12. Sparky P: And probably just as overpaid as the Yankees and Mets.

    Actually a more apt comparison would be with the Knicks, who have both one of the highest payrolls and one of the worst teams. The NY Phil could learn a lot by studying how the Mets turned their team around. Instead of hiring one of the usual suspects – a recycled, old-school white manager, they hired NY native Willie Randolph, who is black, along with a Latino general manager. The two of them have revitalized the team, which has half the payroll of the Yankees and is actually fun to watch and built for the future.

  13. Alex Ross says:

    Well, as I said, I’m not talking about quality on the basis of a given performance of the New World Symphony or whatever. If you have enough money, you can pay out big salaries and put together a group of top-notch conservatory graduates. That’s fine, but a great orchestra is for me something more. I’m thinking of programming, commitment to new music, work with the community, education projects, sense of a mission, sense of a sonic profile, sense of excitement among the players and in the audience. Based on my visits to various places, I feel these things most strongly with the above-named orchestras (though I haven’t actually heard the ASO in Atlanta).

  14. Rodney Lister says:

    In my little experience–having heard San Francisco and Minnesota on Proms concerts–and hearing Boston a good bit–San Fancisco and Boston are way better. I heard Pittsburgh this summer as well as Minnesota–I thought they were better. I haven’t heard LA or Atlanta. (Although it’s hard to imagine anything Solonen does being anything other than good).

  15. Alex Ross says:

    Eric, thanks for asking about the book. It’s nearly done — I’m doing some last-minute rewriting and will send it off in mid-January. I shut down my blog in a moment of high panic, but I’m feeing a bit better now.

    If you ask me, the five great orchestras in America — based variously on quality of playing, inventiveness in programming, boldness and charisma of leadership, and other intangibles — are Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minnesota, Atlanta, and Boston. I think Mark Swed came up with almost the same list a while back. Chicago would jump right in there if Nagano becomes their conductor, as some are whispering.

  16. Walter Ramsey says:

    The Met Orchestra seems to shine only based on who is conducting that particular evening. James Levine has never disappointed me, and probably has not disappointed a lot of people, but I have seen operas there where the orchestra couldn’t get it together: intonation or rhythm, it was all sloppy. By the way, where is Cleveland on this list?

    Walter Ramsey

  17. Sparky P. says:

    And probably just as overpaid as the Yankees and Mets.

  18. Graham Rieper says:

    what’s the difference between a bull and the New York Philharmonic?

  19. Evan Johnson says:

    From where I sit, the New York Phil is digging its way to irrelevance in its choice of repertoire and music directors. Whether they are the third or the tenth best orchestra in the country is really of very little import.

  20. Eric Lin says:

    Alex, what happen to your holiday hiatus? I’m waiting to read your book!

  21. Alex Ross says:

    Sorry, meant to write Ballllllet.

  22. Alex Ross says:

    Let’s give them one thing: they’re better than the New York City Balllet orchestra.

  23. I’m going to stay out of the discussion of the merits of his criticism, both because I don’t feel qualified to address them and because I have a conflict of interest anyway, but the headline on this piece is rather irresponsible:
    “New York Drops Off the List Of ‘Big Five’ Orchestras”
    Makes it sound like a news item rather than an opinion piece, as if the “Big Five” is an official designation indicating actual quality rather than customary historical designation which has remained unchanged. If I wrote an article titled “Harvard Drops Off the List of ‘Ivy League’ Schools” it would be absurd, whereas if I declared that Harvard is no longer one of America’s best 8 schools it would be fine.

    It should be noted, however, that Mr. Kirshnit is probably not responsible for the headline, since they’re generally handled by the editors. And I’m sure his praise of the proposed new additions is entirely warranted.

  24. David Salvage says:

    Ditto on the Met vs. Phil. I haven’t made it to the opera this season yet, but I’ve heard from multiple sources the singing is very, very uneven this year. Hope the Met isn’t losing focus on the quality with all its exciting (and worthy) publicity projects it has going on.

  25. Jerry Bowles says:

    He’s right about the not being the best orchestra on the Lincoln Center plaza. The Met Orchestra blows the NYPhil away.