by Classical Music/Opera Editor Daniel J. Kushner
The symphony orchestra – and, by extension, classical music – is a cultural mainstay and source of pride for countless communities throughout the United States. World-class ensembles such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra are prominent institutions in their respective cities, but represent only parts of a whole that includes chamber orchestras, chorales, a cappella ensembles, early music and new music ensembles, and everything in between.
With such storied conductors as the incomparable Gustav Mahler in his brief tenure with the New York Philharmonic, the legendary Arturo Toscanini at the helm of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the treasured Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the seminal Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic, and myriad others, American orchestras have a long history of collaboration with famous and influential maestros. That tradition continues today with the likes of Esa-Pekka Salonen and newcomer Gustavo Dudamel—to whom one can most directly attribute the return of the cult of the conductor—with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Osmo Vänskä of the Minnesota Orchestra, James Levine, formerly with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Music Director Designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to mention only a handful.
Chamber music is similarly vital, with a patchwork of organizations throughout America that make it their goal to bring top-flight chamber musicians to their local communities. And while ensembles of various size and instrumentation flourish, the medium of the string quartet remains at the forefront. Prominent string quartets based in the States include the Juilliard String Quartet, ETHEL, the Emerson String Quartet, and the Kronos Quartet.
The scope of chamber music is far-reaching, from early music to Romantic masterworks to new commissions, but the intimacy of the performances and the chemistry between the players transcends stylistic differences. Speaking of variances in genre, it is worth noting that a subset of classical music dubbed “indie classical”—a descendent of Minimalism and the composer collective Bang on a Can—has emerged in recent years, with its epicenter in New York City. The burgeoning scene has been championed by young composers and musicians for whom notions of genre hold no influence over their creative output. With such active forces within the national community, the future of classical music in America is a promising one.
Great American Classical Music Cities
Top Classical Music Festivals
Aspen Music Festival, Aspen, CO
Boston Early Music Festival, Boston, MA
Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, San Diego, CA
June in Buffalo Festival, Buffalo, NY
La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, San Diego, CA
Mostly Mozart Festival, New York, NY
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
Tanglewood Music Festival, Lenox, MA
The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music (A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings) is Allan Kozinn’s compendium of vital classical music recordings, and an excellent way to investigate the repertoire and its best audio documents.
The Rest Is Noise is a highly recommended history of classical music in the 20th century by Alex Ross, classical music critic for The New Yorker.
Why Classical Music Still Matters is an extended essay about the vitality of classical music by Lawrence Kramer.
Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic: Inaugural Concert
The historic Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic series
Music from the Inside Out, featuring members of The Philadelphia Orchestra
Keeping Score: Revolutions in Music – Beethoven’s Eroica, featuring conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony