Choosing the 10 best orchestras in the world was straightforward enough. We all agreed on the names, but it was the order that had us butting heads.
The truth is, there is little that differentiates orchestras at this level. They are all sublime. So we had to look beyond the sound they produce and consider their contributions to the classical music genre, their history, and their renown. We experienced something similar when lining up the Best Bands of All Time.
Because listing only 10 orchestras proved too difficult, we expanded to include a few runners-up and a list of honorable mentions. Hopefully, you don’t mind. With that being said, let’s jump into the list of the best orchestras in the world…
#10 – Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Founded: 1945 by Henry Sopkin
First known as Atlanta Youth Symphony, this Georgia-based orchestra performs over 200 times each year. It regularly gets involved in education, special events, and fundraising—clearly a big part of its community. Its recordings are widely praised, and, as of 2006, it has received a total of 26 Grammy Awards.
One-hundred musicians and a staff of 65 constitute the ASO. What I like is that they sponsor the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, a group of 120 burgeoning high school musicians. They are chosen competitively, so each musician is highly talented. And that talent will grow, given they rehearse under the same conductors and coaches as ASO.
Sometimes it will perform classical series, pop concerts, family and children programs, free summer park concerts, and performances throughout Georgia and surrounding states. When it needs a hand (er, voice), it is joined by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, comprising 200 people, and the ASO Chamber Chorus, which is between 40 and 60.
Trivia: 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.
#9 – National Symphony Orchestra
Founded: 1930 w/ Hans Kindler
Based in Washington, D.C., and housed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Symphony Orchestra, as the name implies, is the official orchestra of the United States. It was founded in 1930 through the work of its first conductor, Hans Kindler, who received a salary of $40 a week. The turning point in the orchestra’s story came in the 1970s as music director Antal Dorati helped build the orchestra to where it is today. He brought it artistic recognition, commissioning, and acclaimed recordings.
In the community, the National Symphony Orchestra has participated in the Kennedy Center’s American Residencies outreach initiative, in which the entire orchestra travels to a different state to perform and host workshops and presentations for schools.
Trivia: If you’ve watched a presidential inauguration, you will have heard the NSO. Speaking of which, First Lady Nancy Reagan once conducted the NSO in 1987.
#8 – New York Philharmonic
Founded: 1842 by Ureli Corelli Hill
The New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO) was born on December 7, 1842, the date of its first performance, when 63 musicians performed for 600 people at the Apollo Rooms. This makes it one of the oldest musical institutions in America. With all those years to practice, it’s no wonder the NYPO is also one of the leading orchestras in the country. It performs in the David Geffen Hall (of record label fame) in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
For the first 25 years, the New York Philharmonic was run as a co-operative society (i.e., the musicians managed themselves). This is no longer the case given the degree of its success. It has performed over 15,000 concerts—a record—and has nearly 2,000 recordings.
Trivia: 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.
#7 – Boston Symphony Orchestra
Founded: 1881 by Henry Lee Higginson
The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) was also a member of the “Big Five” (a term you may see once or twice while reading this list). This world-renowned orchestra is the second-oldest musical institution in America, though not as old as the aforementioned New York Philharmonic. If you go to listen to the BSO, be prepared for renditions of the French repertoire and contemporary music interpretations—it’s known for them.
You may be more familiar with the Boston Pops, an offshoot of the Boston Symphony Orchestra developed in 1885. It consists of BSO members, excluding the primary, first-chair players. They play lighter music and more popular classic songs. If you’re in New England and are new to classical music, the Pops would be a great introduction.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra has been recording since 1917 and performs up to 250 shows each year. They also regularly go on national and international tours, and 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 “Friends and Lovers” debuted about a fictional BSO musician.
#6 – Philadelphia Orchestra
Founded: 1900 by Fritz Scheel
Here’s another member of the “Big Five”, this time representing Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Orchestra is housed in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and plays over 130 concerts each year, considerably fewer than its Boston and New York counterparts.
And while it may not be known for its frequency of performances, the Philadelphia Orchestra is known for its firsts. For instance, 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.
Never one to drag its feet into the present day, the Philadelphia Orchestra was 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: The P.O. 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
Ohio’s Cleveland Orchestra is another of America’s “Big Five”. Musicians from all over the world come to Severance Hall to perform and be a part of the orchestra that boasts 100+ members each season.
Symphonies are usually family-friendly affairs, with free tickets extended to those under 18 at many of the orchestra’s performances. They even have individual performances geared directly towards children, such as the PNC Musical Rainbows Show and the American Greetings Family Concert. Indeed, the Cleveland Orchestra isn’t in it for the money, it is a non-profit and has the lowest operating budget out of all of the other orchestras its size.
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.
#4 – 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 a rule was created stating players of Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra must give the orchestra their services exclusively.
The LSO then began as a co-operative, similar to the New York Philharmonic. Its players determined how much they would get paid, what and when they would play, and who could be in the orchestra. Such independence made the LSO the envy of many of the world’s top players.
The orchestra is the world’s No. 1 most recorded orchestra, having played on over 200 soundtrack recordings. Some are featured on our list of the best movie soundtracks of all time, like the Star Wars series, Superman: The Movie, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Trivia: The entire orchestra almost met its end when it was scheduled to sail on the Titanic to New York. Luckily, the booking was changed at the last minute.
#3 – Berlin Philharmonic
Founded: 1882 by Fruhere Bilsesche Kapelle (literally, “Former Bilse’s Band”)
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 the Second World War. Their second one was constructed in 1963, which caught on fire in 2008. UNICEF appointed them as Goodwill Ambassadors in November 2007.
#2 – Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Founded: 1891 by Theodore Thomas
Another one of America’s “Big Five,” the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), is respected worldwide. (We presume all of the Big Five are respected worldwide, though maybe we’re biased.) Twenty-eight years after the orchestra was founded, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago was founded as a training orchestra. It was the first of its kind ever to be associated with a major symphony orchestra in the United States. Its goal was 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 U.S.
Trivia Facts: The CSO has earned 62 Grammy Awards. In 2007, it created its own recording label called CSO Resound. It recorded music for the movies Lincoln in 2012 and Fantasia in 2000.
#1 – Vienna Philharmonic
Founded: 1842 by Franz Lachner
Want to be a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra? First you need to be selected from the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. Then you must play there for a minimum of three years before you 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. So if you wanted to hear them here, you may want to invest in a time machine.
Their sound is unique because they tune their instruments, such as the trombone, the timpani, the double bass, and the rotary-valve trumpet, at a different pitch than most other major orchestras.
Trivia: All of the musicians’ instruments are made in Vienna, giving them a slightly different sound than other orchestras worldwide.
Runners-Up: Who’s Almost a Best Orchestra in the World?
Founded: 1548 by Maurice, Elector of Saxony
The Staatskapelle Dresden in Germany is not only one of the world’s best orchestras (though apparently not good enough to qualify for our collective top 10), 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 perform around 50 times annually at the opera house and various other locations.
The Staatskapelle does a lot in the community, in terms of musical education and heritage—so much so, they are the only orchestra to be awarded the European Prize for the Preservation of the World’s Musical Heritage. It’s 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.
Trivia: 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.
While film and television are Los Angeles’s bread and butter, the L.A. Phil (as it’s known) has quietly made a name for itself among the culture cognoscenti. It performs at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl and is known for its contemporary, forward-minded, innovative, and adventurous symphony pursuits, which somehow makes sense when discussing an orchestra based on California. The LA Phil is trying to be innovative and aims to redirect the trajectory of modern orchestras. If you’re in southern California, you should consult its performance schedule: it plays regularly in San Diego, Palm Springs, Costa Mesa, and Santa Barbara.
But if you can’t make it to one of their performances, don’t fear. The current conductor and director of the LA Phil, Gustavo Dudamel, has hosted a radio program from his home called At Home with Gustavo during which he shared musical selections and personal stories as a means of bringing people together in the name of music. The program was broadcast internationally in English and Spanish. We have no doubt Gustavo will launch another program that will make classical music accessible to those with the curiosity but without the financial and/or physical means to attend.
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: It has a fellowship for early-career symphonic musicians from underrepresented populations. It performed the music in “Battlestar Galactica”‘s pilot television debut.
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 seven chief conductors.
It has also been busy imitating those in the rap game by starting its own label, called RCO Live. This way, it can issue its own CD recordings to the public. To date, there are nearly 1,000 in circulation. This increased accessibility has only enhanced its reputation.
Trivia: In 1988, Queen Beatrix deemed the symphony “Royal.” The Concertgebouw (concert hall) gets more than 740,000 visitors a 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.
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Founded: 1983 by Ivan Fischer & Zoltan Kocsis
The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s home center is in Hungary, and members comprise the country’s best up-and-coming young musicians. It aims to make Hungary internationally recognized in the orchestral sphere.
The orchestra runs its own festival called the Bridging Europe festival, which 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 2013.
Trivia: The conductor often invites young, internationally acclaimed singers and musicians to perform with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. They regularly play such esteemed venues as Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, the Royal Concertgebouw, London’s Royal Albert Hall, and more.
Honorable Mentions for the Best Orchestras in the World
Maybe if we were more disciplined, we could cap the list at 14. But as it stands, there are too many other orchestras that deserve a mention. And who knows? Perhaps over time, the following orchestras will break into the top 10.
- Minnesota Orchestra (Founded in 1903 by Emil Oberhoffer)
- San Francisco Symphony (Founded in 1911 led by Henry Hadley)
- The Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Founded in 1908, formerly known as Symphony Orchestra of the Augusteo)
- St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (Founded in 1880 by Joseph Otten)
- Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Founded in 1949 by Eugen Jochum, et al.)
- The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Founded in 1986 by Mathew Truscott, et al.)
- The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Founded in 1781 under the name Gewandhausorchester)
- The Aurora Orchestra (Founded in 2005 by Nicholas Collon and Robin Ticciati)
- The Hallé Orchestra (Founded in 1858 by Charles Hallé)
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!
The Top 10 Orchestras in the World (2023 Update)
This is the table for the top 10 best orchestras in the world. It contains their names and date found.
|1||Vienna Philharmonic||1842 by Franz Lachner|
|2||Chicago Symphony Orchestra||1891 by Theodore Thomas|
|3||Berlin Philharmonic||1882 by Fruhere Bilsesche Kapelle|
|4||London Symphony Orchestra||1904 by Adolf Borsdorf, Et al.|
|5||Cleveland Orchestra||1918 by Adella Prentiss Hughes|
|6||Philadelphia Orchestra||1900 by Fritz Scheel|
|7||Boston Symphony Orchestra||1881 by Henry Lee Higginson|
|8||New York Philharmonic||1842 by Ureli Corelli Hill|
|9||National Symphony Orchestra||1930 w/ Hans Kindler|
|10||Atlanta Symphony Orchestra||1945 by Henry Sopkin|