It was a fairly straightforward exercise to choose the top 10 best orchestras in the world. We can all agree with who should be included, but it's the order of their rankings that might lead to the most interesting conversations.
At this level, the truth is all of these orchestras are perfect, so it really starts to become about their contributions, how long they've been around, and their popularity levels. A similar and more interesting argument is the Best Bands of All Time.
Since sticking to just ten of any ranking is hard, we expanded into a few runners up and a list of honorable mentions, so keep scrolling if you don't see your favorite at first. With that being said, let's jump into the list of the best orchestras in the world...
#10 - National Symphony Orchestra
Founded: 1930 w/ Hans Kindler
This is the official orchestra of the United States. Based in Washington D.C., and housed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The orchestra’s first conductor, Hans Kindler, received a salary of only $40 per week. In the 1970s music director Antal Dorati helped build the orchestra to where it is today. He brought them artistic recognition, commissioning, and acclaimed recordings.
The National Symphony Orchestra, or NSO, has participated in the Kennedy Center’s American Residencies outreach initiative. This is where the entire orchestra travels to a different state and not only performs but also holds workshops and presentations for schools.
The NSO also runs the National Symphony Orchestra Summer Music Institute. They offer scholarships to promising, top-level musicians around the world to come study with the NSO at the nation's capital for a few weeks each summer.
Trivia Facts: The National Symphony Orchestra performs each year at the National Memorial Day Concert and the PBS Independence Day Concert Special, called A Capitol Fourth. They also perform at presidential inaugurations. There are 100 musicians, and they play approximately 175 concerts each year. First Lady Nancy Reagan once conducted the NSO in 1987.
#9 - Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Founded: 1945 by Henry Sopkin
This orchestra is based out of Atlanta, Georgia, and was first known as Atlanta Youth Symphony. They perform over 200 performances each year. They are also known for their involvement in education, special events, community engagement, and fundraising. Their recordings are widely praised, and, as of 2006, they have received a total of 26 Grammy awards.
The ASO is made up of 100 musicians and a staff of 65. They sponsor the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, which is a group of 120 up-and-coming high school musicians. They are chosen competitively, so each musician is highly talented. Even the youngest musicians rehearse under the same conductors and coaches as ASO.
Some of their performances include classical series, pop concerts, family and children programs, free summer park concerts, and performances throughout Georgia and surrounding states. They are often accompanied by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, composed of 200 people, and the ASO Chamber Chorus, which is between 40 and 60.
Trivia Facts: In 1996, the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra played at the Centennial Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The Orchestra has been on two European tours and has performed three times in Berlin. Budget wise, it is one of the six or seven largest orchestras in the nation.
#8 - New York Philharmonic
Founded: 1842 by Ureli Corelli Hill
The New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO) is one of America's leading orchestras and is housed in David Geffen Hall in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. It is one of the oldest musical institutions in America too. They played their first concert on December 7th, 1842, where 63 musicians performed for 600 people at the Apollo Rooms.
For the first 25 years, the New York Philharmonic, they were run as a cooperative society. This means that the musicians managed themselves. They now have performed their record-breaking 15,000th concert and have nearly 2,000 recordings.
Trivia Facts: In 2008, the NYPO was invited by the North Korean government to perform in Pyongyang. This was America's first significant visit to the country since the Korean War. They have won 19 Grammy Awards. Each season they reach around 50 million listeners. The NYPO is also a member of the “Big Five,” which are the top five leading orchestras in the nation.
#7 - Boston Symphony Orchestra
Founded: 1881 by Henry Lee Higginson
The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) was also a member of the “Big Five.” This world-renowned orchestra is the second oldest musical institution in America. They are known for their renditions of the French repertoire and their contemporary music interpretations.
An offshoot of the Boston Symphony Orchestra developed in 1885 and called themselves the Boston Pops Orchestra. It consists of BSO members, excluding the primary, first-chair players. They play lighter music and more popular classic songs.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra has been recording since 1917 and performs up to 250 shows each year. They also regularly travel on national and international tours. They also produce some of the best flute players in the world.
Trivia Facts: BSO has performed on many soundtrack recordings, including the soundtrack of Schindler's List. In 1974, a television comedy called Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers debuted about a fictional BSO musician.
#6 - Philadelphia Orchestra
Founded: 1900 by Fritz Scheel
Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Orchestra is another member of the nation's “Big Five.” They are housed in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and play over 130 concerts each year.
The orchestra is known for a plethora of first endeavors. It was the first orchestra to make electrical recordings in 1925. It was also the first orchestra to appear on a television broadcast on CBS in 1948. And the first to make a commercially sponsored radio broadcast, which was on NBC in 1929.
Additionally, they were the first American orchestra to record the complete Beethoven symphonies digitally and give a live broadcast of a symphony concert over the internet in 1997.
Trivia Facts: The Philadelphia Orchestra performs in symphony halls, classrooms, community centers, hospitals, online, and radio. They are known for their innovation and technological advancements in the symphony world. They launched a HEAR initiative in 2016 that focuses on Health, Education, Access to orchestra performances, and Research in communities throughout Philadelphia.
#5 - Cleveland Orchestra
Founded: 1918 by Adella Prentiss Hughes
The Cleveland Orchestra based in Ohio is one of America's “Big Five.” It is housed at the Severance Hall. The Orchestra usually has 100+ members each season, and only six members of the current orchestra are actually from Ohio, although they all reside permanently in the state. Members come from all over the world, including countries like China, Israel, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Romania, and more.
Cleveland is family-friendly and extends free tickets to kids under 18 at many of its performances. They even have individual performances geared directly towards children, such as the PNC Musical Rainbows Show and the American Greetings Family Concert.
Trivia Facts: The New York Times named the Cleveland Orchestra “America’s Finest Orchestra” in October of 2020. Gramophone Magazine named it the 7th best orchestra in the nation in 2012. The orchestra is a non-profit and has the lowest operating budget out of all of the other orchestras its size. They play all over the world. Cleveland is known globally for its orchestra and other music made there.
#4 - Berlin Philharmonic
Founded: 1882 by Fruhere Bilsesche Kapelle
The Berlin Philharmonic, or Die Berliner Philharmoniker, is one of the world's greatest orchestras and is based in Germany. They have been the recipients of a number of awards over the years, including multiple Classical Brit Awards, Grammy Awards, Gramophone Awards, the ECHO, the ICMA, and the Platinum Stamp awarded by Opera International Magazine.
In 2008 the orchestra announced that they would be building a Digital Concert Hall where they would perform. The digital hall enables viewers from all over the world to see the Philharmonic’s performances, which throughout time have contained many of the best violinists of all time.
Trivia Facts: In 1944, their first concert hall was destroyed by British bombers during WWII. Their second one was constructed in 1963 which caught on fire in 2008. UNICEF appointed them as Goodwill Ambassadors in November of 2007.
#3 - London Symphony Orchestra
Founded: 1904 by Adolf Borsdorf, et al.
Another of the world's most renowned orchestras is the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). The orchestra was created in 1904 when the members of Henry Woods’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra when a rule was created stating players must give the orchestra their services exclusively.
The LSO then began as a cooperative, where the players determined how much they would get paid, what and when they would play, and who could be in the orchestra. This made it one of the best orchestras to be a part of at first.
The orchestra is the world's number one most recorded orchestra and has played on over 200 soundtrack recordings for movies. Some of these include the some of the best movie soundtracks of all time, like Star Wars movie series, Superman: The Movie, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Trivia Facts: The LSO was the first British orchestra to play overseas. The entire orchestra almost met its end when they were scheduled to sail on the Titanic to New York. Luckily, they changed their booking last minute. For many years they did not allow women to join the LSO for fear it would make them sound bad.
#2 - Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Founded: 1891 by Theodore Thomas
Another one of America's “Big Five,” the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), is respected worldwide. Each year the orchestra holds a fundraiser marathon known as the Chicago Symphony Marathon, The Symphonython, and the Radiothon. The CSO is also known for its annual performances at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois.
In 1919 the Civic Orchestra of Chicago was founded. This was the first training orchestra ever to be associated with a major symphony orchestra in the United States. They were used to recruit pre-professional players and train them rigorously until they reached the CSO players’ status. The CSO is currently the only major symphony orchestra sponsoring a training orchestra in the US.
The CSO is a member of several volunteer groups, such as the Latino Alliance, the Overture Council, the League of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, the African American Network, the Women Board, and the Governing Members.
Trivia Facts: They have earned 62 Grammy Awards. In 2007, the CSO created their own recording label called CSO Resound. They recorded music for the movies Lincoln in 2012 and Fantasia in 2000.
#1 - Vienna Philharmonic
Founded: 1842 by Franz Lachner
The members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra are all selected from the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. They must play there for a minimum of three years before they can request a lengthy application to move up to the Vienna Philharmonic, a highly renowned orchestra with an illustrious history.
This historic orchestra is housed at the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria. Seeing them play here is a highly sought-after experience. There is a six-year waiting list for a weekday performance and a 13-year waiting list for a weekend performance.
Their sound is unique because they tune their instruments at a different pitch than most other major orchestras. Many of their instruments, such as the trombone, the timpani, the double bass, and the rotary-valve trumpet, have slight differences from other standard instruments.
Trivia Facts: All of the musicians’ instruments are made in Vienna, giving them a slightly different sound than other orchestras worldwide. In 2006, they were named Europe's finest orchestra by a number of reputable publications. In 2008 Gramophone Magazine ranked them third in the world.
Runners Up: Who's Almost a Best Orchestra in the World?
There's no fun in stopping at the top 10 when we can easily add 4 more to the list. They all deserve mention and might be in your own top 10, and who made us the judges, you know? There are plenty of top-tier orchestras out there. Look for your favorite here or below in the honorable mentions.
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Founded: 1888 by Willem Kes
This is a dutch orchestra based in the Netherlands at the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw (translated to concert hall). This hall has the most world records in the world due to its unparalleled acoustics. There are two halls within the Concertgebouw, the Main Hall with 1974 seats and the Recital Hall with only 150 seats.
Willem Mengelberg was the first conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and held the position for 50 years. The orchestra played many of Gustav Mahler's symphonies, as well as those of Pierre Monteux, George Szell, Kirill Kondrashin, and Eugen Jochum. The orchestra has only ever had 7 chief conductors thus far.
They've started their own label, called RCO Live, to issue their own CD recordings to the public. To date, they've done nearly 1,000 recordings, which have helped entrench their amazing reputation over time.
Trivia Facts: In 1988, Queen Beatrix deemed the symphony as “Royal.” The Concertgebouw (concert hall) gets more than 740,000 visitors per year. The orchestra is known for its debuting of many symphonies written by Gustav Mahler. They have only six chief conductors, which is less than all other orchestras its size.
Founded: 1548 by Maurice, Elector of Saxony
The Staatskapelle Dresden in Germany is not only one of the world's best orchestras, but also one of the oldest; it’s been around since the 1500s. The orchestra is housed at the Semperoper in Dresden, Saxony. Here they perform around 250 ballets and operas each season. They also play around 50 performances annually at the opera house and various other locations, too.
The Staatskapelle are supporters of musical education and heritage in the community. They are the official patron orchestra of the Mettingpoint Music Messiaen. They also helped found the International Shostakovich Festival, a festival dedicated to Dimitri Shostakovich’s life, a soviet and Russian pianist and composer. They are the only orchestra to be awarded the European Prize for the Preservation of the World’s Musical Heritage.
Trivia Facts: Richard Strauss was tied to the Staatskapelle for over 60 years, and they performed nine of the composer's operas. They regularly travel the world to perform. They are the resident orchestra of the Salzburg Easter Festival, directed by Christian Thielemann, their current conductor.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Founded: 1919 by William Andrews Clark, Jr.
The LA Phil performs at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl in California. They are known for their contemporary, forward-minded, innovative, and adventurous symphony pursuits. They aim to redirect the trajectory of modern orchestras. They often play all throughout southern California, including San Diego, Palm Springs, Costa Mesa, and Santa Barbra.
The current conductor and director of the LA Phil is Gustavo Dudamel. He is an innovative conductor who is always finding ways to educate and advocate the importance of music. He has hosted a radio program from his home called At Home with Gustavo where he shared musical selections and personal stories to bring people together. The program was broadcast internationally in English and Spanish.
Some of the best piano players in the world work with this and the other orchestras but often don't get the individual recognition they otherwise deserve.
Trivia Facts: They have a fellowship for early-career symphonic musicians from underrepresented populations. As of 2019, their annual budget is around $125 million. They performed the music in Battlestar Galactica's pilot television debut. They also played the music for the Final Fantasy game and the soundtrack for BioShock 2, the video game.
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Founded: 1983 by Ivan Fischer & Zoltan Kocsis
The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s home center is in Hungary, and members are drawn from the country’s best up-and-coming young musicians. They aim to make Hungary a worldwide orchestral name and to give Budapest the international recognition it deserves.
The orchestra runs its own festival called the Bridging Europe festival that focuses on a different nation's culture each year. Additionally, each year they give two free weeks of concerts to nursing homes, churches, S.O.S. Children's Villages and synagogues. They often play for young audiences. They participate in the Choose Your Instrument program for elementary school children and the Cocoa Concert Series for young kids.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra was awarded the 9th best orchestra globally, above the New York Philharmonics and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They have received Gramophone awards and Grammy nominations. New York Magazine voted the BFO’s production of The Marriage of Figaro as the best classical music event of the year in 2013.
Trivia Facts: The conductor often invites young, internationally-acclaimed singers and musicians to perform with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. They are regular guests at important venues like Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, The Royal Concertgebouw, London's Royal Albert Hall, and more.
Honorable Mentions for the Best Orchestras in the World
We just can't cap off our list even with those mentioned above. There's too many other great orchestras you should know about or that deserve a mention. They all have a chance over time to climb the list, so here they are.
- Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Founded in 1949 by Eugen Jochum, et al.)
- San Francisco Symphony (Founded in 1911 led by Henry Hadley)
- Minnesota Orchestra (Founded in 1903 by Emil Oberhoffer)
- St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (Founded in 1880 by Joseph Otten)
- The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Founded in 1986 by Mathew Truscott, et al.)
- The Aurora Orchestra (Founded in 2005 by Nicholas Collon and Robin Ticciati)
This could truly go on forever so we'll have to cut it off here. If we weighted the variables differently based on different opinions, the whole list could change or at least rearrange in order. That's why these rankings are always so fun and inspire so much conversation.
If you enjoyed this list, why not try something similar and check out our list of the best-selling artists of all time? They require similar commitments to the craft that orchestra members need to deal with to reach the big time. Have fun, and thanks for reading about the best orchestras in the world!