The World’s Top 20 Orchestras

In 2008, the world’s top 20 symphony orchestras were ranked in a critic’s poll. It was conducted by Gramophone, which is a magazine devoted to classical music and published in London. The orchestras including the current conductors are listed below:


Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is an American orchestra based in Chicago, Illinois. It is one of the five American orchestras commonly referred to as the "Big Five". The CSO has amassed an extensive discography and earned more than 60 Grammy Awards. more

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New York Philharmonic

The New York Philharmonic is one of the leading American orchestras popularly referred to as the "Big Five". The music director is Alan Gilbert (USA, born Feb 23, 1967), who began his tenure in 2009. The Philharmonic's home is the Avery Fisher/ David Geffen Hall, located in New York's Lincoln Center...more

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The World’s Top 20 Orchestras

1. Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Mariss Jansons (2004-2015) and Daniele Gatti (starting 2016)
2. Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle (2002-2018) and Kirill Petrenko (starting 2018)
3. Vienna Philharmonic (working with guest conductors only)
4. London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (2005-2015)
5. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (since 2010), one of the Big Five American Orchestras
6. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Munich, Mariss Jansons (since 2003)
7. Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Moest (since 2002), one of the Big Five American Orchestras
8. Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel (since 2009)
9. Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer (since 1983)
10. Dresden Staatskapelle, Christian Thielemann (since 2012)
11. Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (since 2014), one of the Big Five American Orchestras
12. New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (since 2009), one of the Big Five American Orchestras
13. San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (since 1995)
14. Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, St. Petersburg, Valery Gergiev (since 1988)
15. Russian National Orchestra, Moscow, Mikhail Pletnev (since its foundation in 1990)
16. St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Yuri Temirkanov (since 1988)
17. Leipzig Gewandhaus, Riccardo Chailly (since 2005)
18. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, NY, Fabio Luisi (since 2011)
19. Saito Kinen Orchestra, Matsumoto City, Japan, Seiji Ozawa (since 1992), Taijiro Iimori, Tatsuya Shimono
20. Czech Philharmonic, Prague, Jiří Bělohlávek (since 2012)

Big Five

Four of the Big Five American Orchestras are already included above, the fifths of the Big Five is the Philadelphia Orchestra, currently conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin since 2012.

The Big Five orchestras of the United States are the five symphony orchestras that led the field in "musical excellence, calibre of musicianship, total contract weeks, weekly basic wages, recording guarantees, and paid vacations" when the term gained currency in the late 1950s and for some years afterwards. In order of foundation, they were: New York Philharmonic (1842), Boston Symphony Orchestra (1881), Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1891), Philadelphia Orchestra (1900) and Cleveland Orchestra (1918).

Top Seven

People still refer to the "Big Five", but many believe the classification to be outdated. Several critics have suggested that the top echelon is expanded. Seven American orchestras were numbered among the world's top twenty in a 2008 critics' poll by Gramophone. They were, in rank order, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (5th), the Cleveland Orchestra (7th), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (8th), the Boston Symphony Orchestra (11th), the New York Philharmonic (12th), the San Francisco Symphony (13th), and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (New York City) (18th). While the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra would expand the American “Big Five”, the Philadelphia Orchestra did not rank among the world’s top 20.


An orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble that contains sections of string (violin, viola, cello and double bass), brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments. Other instruments such as the piano and celesta may sometimes be grouped into a fifth section such as a keyboard section or may stand alone, as may the concert harp and electric and electronic instruments.

The term orchestra derives from the Greek name for the area in front of an ancient Greek stage reserved for the Greek chorus. The orchestra grew by accretion throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but changed very little in composition during the course of the 20th century.

A smaller-sized orchestra of about fifty musicians or fewer is called a chamber orchestra. A full-size orchestra of about 70-100 musicians may sometimes be called a symphony orchestra or philharmonic orchestra. These modifiers do not indicate any difference, but can be useful to distinguish different ensembles based in the same city like the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The actual number of musicians employed in a particular performance may vary according to the work being played and the size of the venue. 

The term concert orchestra may sometimes be used like the BBC Concert Orchestra and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and their use is generally distinguished as for live concert. There are several types of amateur orchestras, including school orchestras, youth orchestras and community orchestras.

Orchestras are usually led by a conductor who directs the performance by way of visible gestures. The conductor unifies the orchestra, sets the tempo and shapes the sound of the ensemble.