Years ago, in my early teens and in thrall of all things New York, I just assumed the New York Philharmonic was considered the greatest orchestra in the country. My mother, a violin teacher and Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscriber since her music school days, set me straight.
"The Chicago Symphony's considered the greatest orchestra in the country."
I wondered if perhaps, as a longtime Chicago area resident and CSO attendee, she was biased. I wondered if this was an attempt to sell me on the merits of Chicago when I was intent on moving to NYC. In my defense, I was young, more knowledgeable about pianists than orchestras, biased in favor of all things New York, and, well, I was young.
Now, I haven't undertaken a comparative study of symphony orchestras--and I'm certainly not qualified to judge. Nor is there a World Series for orchestras. But after attending a number of CSO concerts over the years and listening to a lot of CDs, I do think my mother was right. And Gramophone Magazine, among others, is on her side. In 2008, the classical music magazine ranked the Chicago Symphony Orchestra number 5 on its list of Top 20 Orchestras, the highest ranked of any U.S. orchestra. (The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam was named number 1.)
But enough with the rankings; this isn't baseball. Just check out some of our Chicago Symphony Orchestra recordings and listen for yourself. And be grateful that you can listen to great music for free courtesy of your local library, and that you live in the vicinity of the greatness that is the CSO. Here are two CDs to start with.
The library owns the complete Beethoven Symphonies conducted by the late Sir Georg Solti. My favorite is the 3rd Symphony, with its soaring first movement. And there's a reason the 5th symphony is a classical music hit. Listen to all four movements--not just the famous first--to hear why. To experience the joy that is the 9th symphony, turn the volume up to 11 (but not in the library, seriously).
The CSO now has its own label, and in 2010 released Verdi's Messa da Requiem conducted by Riccardo Muti, the new music director of the CSO. According the interview with Muti that accompanies the CD, Muti feels that: "Verdi, like Mozart, was a composer who expressed the most essential feelings of mankind: love, hate, friendship, jealousy--everything that reflects our life, our way of being human. His music is the mirror of who we are." The composition begins so quietly you may think the CD isn't working. But listen carefully and stay tuned for an otherworldly listening experience.