Back in February of 2010, I used this site to pursue the exercise of trying to identify the source of talk about the "Big Five" American orchestras. My search led to the February 22, 1963 issue of Time magazine, which, in a sidebar entitled "The Top U.S. Orchestras," made the following declaration:
The five major American orchestras are by general consent the Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland and Chicago.
I grew up in Philadelphia (following a few childhood years in Brooklyn); and I had never encountered this kind of talk. If there was any consensus on who commanded the top of the pile, it probably would have been without Cleveland. This made a nice symmetry for the record business, since RCA recorded Boston and Chicago, while Philadelphia and New York were handled by Columbia. One could thus choose a favorite orchestra the same way one chose a favorite television network.
My guess is that Time bumped the number up a notch because the sidebar supplemented a profile of George Szell and his leadership of the Cleveland Orchestra. It was as if some editor must have decided you could not profile anyone unless he was at the top of someone’s pile. The whole thing was pretty silly; but, in April of 1966, things got even sillier when Time decided to replace the Big Five with the “Elite Eleven.” Six orchestras were added to the list from the following cities:
- Los Angeles
- San Francisco
This amounted to admitting that one could find “high culture” beyond the confines of the North Atlantic Coast and Chicago. You might say that it was an effort to take a criterion for elitism and make it a little less elite. It would be nice to think that we have progressed beyond such foolishness; but, of course, we have not done so. I suspect that we shall continue to try to rank-order those involved in the performance of serious music as if they were just another category of athlete or sports team; and, for all I know, barroom brawls will break out over whether the San Francisco Symphony string section has better intonation than the one in Boston.