Big Five (orchestras)

In the context of classical music in the United States, the Big Five refers to five symphony orchestras that were considered to be the most prominent and accomplished ensembles when the term gained widespread use by music critics in the late 1950s. The "Big Five", in the order of their founding, are:


The term "Big Five" was coined around the time that long-playing recordings became available, regular orchestral radio broadcasts were expanding, and the five orchestras that comprise the group had annual concert series in New York City.

The earliest rubric for the leading U.S. orchestras was the "Major Seven" in the early 20th century. In the mid-20th century, with recordings and radio broadcasts at first available in the U.S only from major East Coast cities, the term devolved into the "Big Three": New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

The "Big Three" label was still in widespread use in 1958 (Newsweek, February 17, 1958). However, the Cleveland Orchestra, under George Szell's direction, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under Fritz Reiner, were gaining critical and public acclaim. By 1965, the term "Big Five", which included the latter two orchestras, was being widely used in magazines, newspapers, and books.

Modern use

The term "Big Five" is today considered by many to be outdated, but its use has become so common and its meaning so synonymous with the quality of achievement that so many American orchestras strive for, that its use now continues well past the specifics of why it became fashionable and meaningful. A variety of music critics, at both the local and national level, have written thoughtful and passionate articles proposing new members to the upper echelon of American orchestras (including Michael Walsh in Time Magazine, 1983; Tim Page in Newsday, 1990; and Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, 2005). The evidence of recordings and reviews suggests that several orchestras have at times risen to this exalted level of performance, with today's Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, most frequently mentioned or praised by music critics nationally.


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