When the irredeemably stupid meets the inherently unmeasurable

The December issue of the British magazine Gramophone reportedly has an article ranking the world’s top 20 orchestras, and it looks like this:

Gramophone’s Top 20:

1.     Concertgebouw-Orkest, Amsterdam
2.     Berliner Philharmoniker
3.     Wiener Philharmoniker
4.     London Symphony Orchestra
5.     Chicago Symphony Orchestra
6.     Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
7.     Cleveland Orchestra
8.     Los Angeles Philharmonic
9.     Budapest Festival Orchestra
10.   Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden
11.    Boston Symphony Orchestra
12.   New York Philharmonic
13.   San Francisco Symphony
14.   Mariinsky Theater Orchestra
15.   Russian National Orchestra
16.   St. Petersburg Phillharmonic
17.   Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
18.   Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
19.   Saito Kinen Symphony Orchestra
20.  Tschechische Philharmonie

It’s impossible to overstate just how stupid is the idea of ranking orchestras. But I’ll try (and I’ll fail, at least in terms of overstatement.)

What are the criteria? Are we talking about things that one can at least be objective about, such as ensemble or pitch? Or are we trying to evaluate expressiveness, beauty of sound, responsiveness to what the conductor wants, or any other criteria about which objectivity is COMPLETLY IMPOSSIBLE?

Controlling the variables. Under which conductors? In which halls? Playing which repertoire? Did they listen blind, or did they know in advance which orchestras they were judging?

Who’s judging? Critics? (And what kind of training do they have?) Conductors? Orchestra musicians? Soloists?

Let’s be frank. This was a ranking done by critics none of whom heard all the orchestras, didn’t hear them in the same acoustic environment, heard them under conductors of varying abilities and with wildly different concepts of what an orchestra should sound like, and heard them playing music from every corner of the repertoire.

In short, as they say in the software business, GIGO – garbage in, garbage out.

Contrast this with the typical orchestra audition, which is designed solely to make a serious and important (at least to the participants) judgment about the quality of competing musicians. Such an audition

  • puts the competitors behind a screen so that the only criteria is how they sound
  • has the competitors playing in the same acoustic
  • has the competitors playing the same music
  • has the competitors evaluated by the same trained listeners

and still produces imperfect and unreplicable results.

In the words of econoblogger Brad DeLong, “Why Oh Why Can’t We Have a Better Press Corps?” Shame on anyone who uses this article for anything other than the use to which Max Reger famously put an unfavorable review.


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