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Classical Mythology 101

5. The Myth of The Big Five

The only American orchestras that matter are the ones in New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

I wish I could charge a dollar toll fee every time I read some critic babbling on about The Big Five. The subject is symphony orchestras, and it's a notion that refuses to die. In this mythos, there are five American orchestras that occupy the loftiest plane. The context is usually predictable. Generally, a writer may accept the constitution of the Five as is. Sometimes, a critic will call for the addition of a Big Sixth (oftentimes, the band in the writer's immediate locale). Other times, he will declare that one or more members of the original Five is off its game and he'll suggest an alternate makeup for this elite club.

In the first place, it's not obvious what's so magical about the number five. Originally, there were The Big Three orchestras made up of the historically significant ensembles that were incorporated by 1900. They included the Philharmonic Society of New York (1842), the Boston Symphony (1881) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (1900). At some point (by the mid-'50s), the original Three had been expanded to Five with the admission of the Chicago Symphony (1891) and The Cleveland Orchestra (1918). It wasn't a bad idea to augment this august group, but the membership list hasn't kept up with the times. Today, it wouldn't be all that bad to speak of a Big Twenty or Big Thirty. Large communities all over the Americas -- and not just in the U.S. -- have excellent orchestras playing standard rep and new music to very high standards. They're composed of fine conservatory trained musicians, they're led by outstanding maestros and they've been around a long time. Several orchestras including the ones in Pittsburgh, Seattle, Minnesota and Dallas have passed or are approaching the century mark. Even the Honolulu Symphony is already beyond its centenary (compare that with the age of Hawaii as a state of the Union). With fine orchestras serving those cities as well as Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta, and San Francisco (not to mention New York's excellent Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, whose stunning playing of symphonic repertoire on tour withstands comparison to any other American orchestra for whom the standard rep is its daily bread and butter), there's no reason for any music writer to invoke the late memory of The Big Five. If you ever see someone do it, write to him and demand a dollar.

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© David BŁndler, 2000
Last revised: May 23, 2000