Are the Big Five Orchestras Still Relevant?


The notion of a Big Five in American Orchestras represents and ideal that may no longer exist. Heralded for their artistic stature, the ensembles included in "discussions of the American orchestral scene" as the Big Five are the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. As outlined by the New York Times, while "the ideal of the Big Five may still exist in the public imagination," the expansion and growth of American cities in the last 100 years has rendered a Big Five obsolete.

Thriving in a "nation of immigrants" 100 years ago, the Big Five played an important role in putting the American orchestral scene on the map. However, as America continued to expand westward, symphonies in Los Angeles and San Francisco challenged the idea of a concrete Big Five, proposing a Big Six or Big Seven. Determining how one orchestra could be more worthy than another further complicates The Big Five, as quality is not so easily judged as a sporting event. Journalists held the Big Five as a paragon of American culture, but as the years have passed, The Big Five has become more and more antiquated.

More recently, "the economic fortunes of the flagship ensembles have changed with the fortunes of their cities." This suggests that The Big Five and other ensembles are subject to economic change and their audiences, which is leading orchestras to focus more on their own market so that they can "integrate themselves more deeply into the culture of their cities." The economy as well as the rise in talent across America has leveled the playing field. As orchestras are playing to more regional tastes with musicians who share a high level of talent and training, the idea of The Big Five is less and less useful.

Despite all of this, The Big Five remains the same. It has become clear that "all the aspiration in the world was not enough for others to break into its ranks, and their aspirations now rightly lie elsewhere." Instead of striving to be a member of The Big Five, orchestras across America are striving to be the best in their own city. For over 100 years, The Big Five have represented the pinnacle of American orchestral music. But now, The Big Five seems to be more of a "false God," as it no longer the main criterion of orchestral greatness.

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