Technology allows us to hear almost all the orchestras in the world, but this does not mean that comparing them is a valuable thing to do
Whenever I am asked which orchestra is the best in the world, it’s tempting to reply that it is the one I’m working with at the time. Of course this is said tongue-in-cheek, but nevertheless, it is not such a bad philosophy to have. Whatever level, imagining a limit to what can be achieved soon creates a barrier of considerable reality. Beyond that, artistic competition is an idle sport and a fascination with subjective hierarchies is perhaps one of human nature’s less interesting characteristics.
People on the business wing of the profession have much to gain from encouraging musical league tables, and the best orchestras should not be denied celebration. But the price for this can inhibit other groups enjoying the recognition they also deserve. Orchestras should not be judged on which have the most expert players, the most valuable instruments, the oldest tradition, the most unbridled enthusiasm, or the most flexible understanding of style. The question is rather which orchestras can transcend these, essentially subjective, attributes and give performances the like of which could not be surpassed. Obviously some orchestras do this more often than others, but there are none that are incapable of having a bad night. Musicians are human after all and it is the humanity of music-making that will always preclude robots from taking part. If audiences were certain they were not going to be disappointed, their enjoyment could be tinged by the complacency of expectation. Conversely, I would guess there are at least a hundred ensembles who, with the right combination of favourable conditions, can offer a truly unforgettable experience. The potential to be, on any given night, ‘the greatest orchestra in the world’ is widespread, and this achievement is reached more often than people might think.
The danger of undervaluing an orchestra is not the damage it could do to its players. Few musicians are susceptible to the hype of their profession, and they know the reality of what they do. But categorising an orchestra’s quality risks creating audiences that are less happy to trust the validity of their own opinions. And it is a pity if, away from the more glamorous musical capitals of the world, a mistaken cultural insecurity doubts the brilliance with which many less famous orchestras play.
In today’s obsessively competitive culture it is hard for orchestras to change the perception of the particular pigeonhole the music industry has assigned them. Reputations, both good and bad, are difficult to shake off. Unlike sport, music has no indisputable points’ system that measures a group’s rise and fall. But to make connections between art and sport is to confuse two completely different activities. Sportsmen aim to be the best at what they do. For musicians, if that ambition is there at all, it is subsumed by a desire to express music as deeply as possible. To ask which orchestras are the greatest is to diminish the purpose of all of them. The score is the goal, not how many goals you score.