What makes an orchestra great?
The New York Philharmonic is always included in the ''top five'' lists of important American orchestras, along with Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago.
Nowadays, many are wont to put Los Angeles in the same class. Partisans of one or another orchestra will also compare that one to the Berlin or the Vienna Phiharmonics, and with good cause. However, the New York Philharmonic is not an orchestra that does this great city proud.
This is not to say that the New Yorkers never play like a front-rank symphonic ensemble but rather that on a day-to-day basis, there is no dedication , no spirit, no real sense that music is important to them instead of just something to do.
I have a chance to hear most of the orchestras several times in the course of a musical season here. Usually they bring blockbuster programs to the city, so one might cite a lack of fairness by comparing those programs with an average night at the Philharmonic. But at one point or another, New Yorkers have heard the Philharmonic tour programs - either just prior to departure or, more tellingly, just after a return.
As to other day-to-day encounters with other orchestras, I have observed the Boston Symphony week after week for eight years, until last winter. The consistency of that group is cause for celebration. Concert after concert, the playing was of a high order, with caring in the ranks. It was that visible commitment to the task at hand that is so distressingly absent at the Philharmonic.
In Boston, if a conductor was not up to the task, the orchestra helped him through. In New York even revered maestros are given the sort of indifference that leads to shocking lapses in performances. Last season, Rafael Kubelik began his stay with the orchestra with Mahler's long, complex Seventh Symphony. It was a shambles from beginning to end. The same work, just about as familiar (or unfamiliar) to the BSO, was executed with hair-raising elan two seasons back. A year ago last fall, Eugene Ormandy led the BSO in a stunning concert featuring ''Mathis der Mahler,'' Roy Harris's Third Symphony, and the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's ''Pictures at an Exhibition.'' It proved to be one of the great concerts, led by a great master. The BSO outdid itself in tonal sheen, depth of sound, and sheer abandon.
Ormandy's opening concert of the Philadelphia's New York season was not a marvel of programming - Richard Strauss's ''Also Sprach Zarathustra,'' and flute concertos by Neilsen and Mozart (which James Galway dispatched with his usual froth and charm). But he elicited from them a sound quality no one else seems able to tap. With the New York Philharmonic, he also conjured sounds that no one else seems to know are there.
It occurred, however, only when the players deigned to watch him. At other times, as in the opening Sibelius Seventh Symphony, the strings simply fell apart for lack of concentration. Yes, Ormandy's beat is not as precise as it once was, but the pulse is always clear, and there is simply no excuse for the sort of sloppy intonation and ensemble that is becoming a glaring trademark of Philharmonic concerts at Avery Fisher Hall.
Do they play any more attentively for their music director Zubin Mehta? Perhaps a bit. A ''Sacre du Printemps'' was marvelously pagan early on in the season. An Ives First Symphony had moments of allure; a Mahler Second Symphony offered sections of thrilling impact; a Mozart ''Jupiter'' Symphony was merely dutiful in execution; a Hindemith ''Concert Music for Strings and Brass'' all but peeled the gold leaf off the balcony-facings.
Why is it that the Philharmonic strings never seem to pay much attention to the conductor? Why is it that the brass section seems to find ''raucously loud'' the only dynamic with which it is comfortable? (I will never forget a Brahms First under James Levine where the haunting horn solo of the last movement emerged like a klaxon of Armageddon.)
Basic blocks of phrases in Bruckner's Third Symphony (under Kubelik) found the strings refusing to admit that there was a pulse to be found. They all went their merry, disheveled (and separate) ways with blithe disregard of the conductor. One can certainly argue that Kubelik's downbeats are vague and eccentric, but the subsequent pulse is quite clear.
In a far less accomplished orchestra, the Dallas Symphony, there is much more commitment, more alertness, more caring. Granted, the ''Daphnis and Chloe'' ballet chosen by music director Eduardo Mata as a showcase was not the right choice, given their general problems of execution, and his fuzzy, genial account of a vivid, often fiery score. And granted, the opening Beethoven ''Triple Concerto'' could be counted as one of the worst performances of a concerto heard in New York in quite some time (Eliot Chapo was the violinist - out of tune - Nathaniel Rosen the wiry-toned cellist, and Yefim Bronfman the percussive pianist). But still, the intention, the resolve, to do the very best was always evident.
Of course the Philadelphia is no stranger to New York. At times, the players can be out of sorts. Under Mata (as guest conductor), they were not up to their usual impeccable selves, but the momentary problems were few and far between. And in something as insistent as Revueltas's ''Sensemaya,'' the orchestra outdid itself, responding to Mata's emphatic command with hair-trigger quickness. Under Klaus Tennstedt, the Philadelphia becomes a pack of inspired demons, taking chances that only so spontaneous, electrifying a conductor can encourage. Last season, Tennstedt offered a white-hot, cataclysmic Mahler First, and this season , he led the players in an epochal Beethoven ''Eroica.''Tennstedt's risk-taking does not always pay off. At times, orchestras plunge over the precipice into disaster when he goes just a bit too far, or chooses to be eccentric rather than inspired. But this ''Eroica'' was definitely inspirational and fresh - a young performance, full of froth, even whimsy, but never stinting on power, passion, and drama, whenever it was called for.
The Boston's most recent visit, under Seiji Ozawa's baton, offered a hectic ''Heldenleben'' that proclaimed a radical (and disturbing) change in the sound of the brass: The new principal trumpet has a searing, penetrating tone - the aural version of a laser beam, quite out of place with the BSO's mellow brass. (Is blasting brass a new trend in orchestral playing today?) But even with that quibble, the BSO is a superior orchestra, and they all play with dedication.
It is hard to decide what should be done about the New York situation, since even 40 years ago Virgil Thompson was observing the same problems and lamenting that there were no conductors available to do anything about it. The Philharmonic is highly paid but overworked. It is, at the base, a morale problem that has become an intergral part of the band. Any hopes that Mehta might have been able to break the pattern have dissolved in the reality that no one short of an old-fashioned (George Szell, Fritz Reiner) tyrant will ever be able to do anything about it.