Unnatural Restrictions

So why are the orchestras of New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland considered America’s “Big Five”?  Is it because they are the five best orchestras in the country with regard to artistic quality?  Are these the ultimate orchestras for musicians and managers that worthy of their aspiration? 

Take this little self test to help you decide, answer honestly and based on what you currently know – no sneaking off to Google or Amazon to gather information.  (You can even send in your answers, if I get enough results I’ll post them in a future blog, complete with nifty color charts and graphs!)

  1. If they programmed the same repertoire in the same concert, which orchestra would you prefer to hear: Boston or Buffalo?
  2. You’re at a music store to buy a recording of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and you find three different copies, one by Chicago for $19, one by New York for $17, and one by Nashville for $8; which would you purchase?
  3. Is an orchestra with a $20 million annual budget twice as good as an orchestra with a $10 million annual budget?
  4. Is an orchestra that has performed in Carnegie Hall better than one that hasn’t?
  5. The executive director at the Boston Symphony must be better than the executive director at the Columbus (OH) Symphony, true or false?
  6. Which orchestra has a better low brass section, Philadelphia or Kansas City?

So how did you do, did you always favor the Big Five orchestra?  Did you even know enough about Buffalo, Nashville, Columbus, or Kansas City to come to an educated answer?  Or did you think the questions were all too subjective to answer definitively? 

Although there isn’t any sort of industry wide ranking system available to help you evaluate each major orchestra like those that exist for sports teams, there is definitely an unspoken “pecking order” that is perpetrated by musicians and managers alike.  Officially, the American Symphony Orchestra League does not endorse rating orchestras.  Their president, Henry Fogel, was quoted once as saying “I loathe attempts to rank orchestras.  These are not sports teams; there aren’t wins and losses.”  The League’s Vice President, Jack McAuliffe, has a similar view, “People love top 10 lists, but I find them really destructive it singles out a tiny number and suggests that all the rest are crap.”  However, the League doesn’t mind classifying orchestras into groups based on their annual budget size:

  • Group 1 have budgets greater than $12.5 million
  • Group 2-4 have budgets between $1.5 million and $12.5 million
  • Groups 5-8 are all below $1.5 million

The League even separates the orchestra executives when it comes time for their annual conference; you only get to officially talk about the challenges facing orchestras with people in your own Group ( I wonder if the room for the Group 1 executives has nicer chairs and better snacks than those for Group 5?).   And if we examine the League’s annual conference list of seminar faculty, you’ll notice all of the scheduled speakers that are selected from orchestras are from Group 1 orchestras.  Perhaps those in attendance don’t have as much to learn from the executive director at Orchestra of St. Lukes as they do from the executive director at Philadelphia (other than how to get a raise while everyone else is taking a pay cut yes, I’m still ticked off over that).

So if you follow the League’s example, there is definitely a “barrier” separating orchestras, if you’re an orchestra that wants to get over that barrier, you have a 90

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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