The 10 Most Impressive College Orchestras in America
The 10 Most Impressive College Orchestras in America
Music has been called the universal language. Varied and multifaceted, music can be a vehicle for expressing and engaging the full range of human emotions and aspirations. Tastes as well as style and instrumentation differ, but most anyone would agree that the music of a symphony orchestra is a powerful medium of artistic expression in sound.
This post looks at 20 of the most impressive college symphony orchestras in America. Because there is such a diversity between colleges, conservatories and universities, evaluating the quality of a given orchestra can be quite subjective. Our criteria for inclusion will give special emphasis to conductors.
As maestros of symphonic sound, conductors play a central role in any orchestra, largely determining a symphony’s quality and artistic power. Other key factors in our evaluation of the most impressive college orchestras in America are the reputation of the institution, the awards an orchestra has received and the history of the orchestra.
Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra
The Shepherd School Symphony at Rice University is comprised of over one hundred of its talented students who practice together over 5 1/2 hours a week. In spite of the fact that the School of Music is one of the newest on the scene, the Symphony, led since 1991 by director Larry Rachleff, has risen in the last 40 years to an impressive level. The school, from its beginning, has emphasized orchestral development and training as one of the main aspects of its curriculum. It was said by a reviewer at their Centennial performance that he was “caught engrossed in the music…completely forgetting that the group was a university orchestra. The students powered and finessed their way through any and all trouble spots.” The university is known internationally as a highly desirable place to study for those who are interested in a career as a professional orchestral musician. As proof of this, the Shepherd Symphony, in its 40 years, has developed to the point of populating up to 40% of the Houston Symphony Orchestra with its alumni and faculty. Their debut at Carnegie Hall in 2014 brought them a standing ovation. It was said by President of Rice University, David Leebron, on that occasion that “the orchestra just really poured forth all the talent it has. Larry Rachleff is just an amazing leader of the orchestra, and tonight’s performance is the culmination of years of building the Shepherd School into one of the premier institutions of music in the country.”
Winner of the American Prize college/orchestral division in 2014 and 2015 and receiving honorable mention in 2013, Baylor Symphony undoubtedly has one of the best symphony orchestras in the country. Beginning in 1946, the orchestra has only played under two conductors, Daniel Sternberg and Stephen Heyde. Mr. Heyde, who has conducted some of the leading musicians of the world, including Andre Watts, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Joshua Bell, has led the Symphony to its success. He has conducted Baylor Symphony throughout international tours in Costa Rica and Belgium and, by invitation, at the prestigious Piccolo Spoleto Festival as well as many national musical conventions. In 2003, Baylor Symphony was also a featured part of the PBS special “Christmas at Baylor,” aired to over 6 million viewers. In spite of its high reputation, the Symphony has a 70 year tradition of giving annual concerts for the local school children in Waco, Texas. Comprised of student musicians from half of the 50 American States, Baylor Symphony has gained a reputation, through hard work, for performing with exceptional artistry.
“I was astonished by the music of the St. Olaf Orchestra. It has to be one of the best college orchestras in the nation.”
-Richard Ostling, Time
The St. Olaf Orchestra, part of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, has acquired an impressive reputation over the last 100 years. It owes much of its current success to an excellent string instructor, Beatrix Lien and its previous conductor, Donald Berglund who both retired in the late 70s. Conductor Berglund, for 3 decades, and St. Olaf’s current conductor, Steven Amundsen have brought the orchestra to tremendous success. Amundsen has conducted the orchestra on its annual U.S. tours as well as tours in Scandinavia, Europe and China. St. Olaf Orchestra also performed as Garrison Keillor’s guest on a broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. It performs each year as part of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival which is broadcast on PBS and radio stations throughout the nation. It was also the recipient of the 2013 American Prize in Orchestral Performance. When British composer-conductor Sir David Willcocks guest conducted the orchestra in the 90s, he wrote: “I was struck by the excellent playing of the orchestra, whose members were not only technically assured but were exceptionally musical and responsive.”
The Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra has been awarded three consecutive ASCAP prizes for Adventurous Programming in the Collegiate Division by the League of American Orchestras. It received first prize in the 2010-2011 ASCAP awards, second prize in 2011-2012 and first prize in the 2012-2013 awards. It was also a prize winner in two different categories in the 2011 American Prize: Orchestral Performance and an Award for Programming. The Orchestra continued its string of successes when it again won second prize in the 2014 American Prize for Performance. Its conductor, Jeffery Meyer, previously conducting in Russian and China, was called “one of the most interesting and creatively productive conductors working in St. Petersburg.” After one of his performances conducting the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic, The New York Times described his performances as “impressive”, “powerful”, “splendid”, and “blazing.” We can expect more innovative, impressive and distinguished performances from this talented group of young people and its brilliant conductor.
Mannes Orchestra is the student orchestra of Mannes College The New School of Music. One of the most prestigious schools in the world, Mannes Orchestra reflects the high quality of music that the school has produced in its graduates. David Hayes, the Mannes Orchestra conductor, is a graduate of Curtis Institute and has a broad conducting background. Hayes has conducted choral, symphonic and orchestral genres. He serves on the board of directors of Chorus America and Music Director of the Philadelphia Singers. In 1999, he served as Assistant Conductor to Sir Andre Previn for the Curtis Symphony Orchestra’s European tour. It looks as though the students participating in Mannes Orchestra will have their own possibility to learn more of the art of conducting. The New School’s Mannes College Orchestra recently announced the creation of the Julius Rudel Award which will give students of the orchestra the opportunity to serve as conductors and learn about a professional orchestra. The winners of this award will have an inside view and experience of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Western Michigan University Symphony Orchestra was named “Best Classical University Symphony Orchestra” in 2005 by Downbeat magazine. In 2003 they were awarded the most memorable performance of the year by the Kalamazoo Gazette. They have continued their reputation, after making it to the semi-finals in 2014, by winning, in 2015, third place in the college/university orchestra division of the American Prize. On the occasion, the symphony’s conductor, Bruce Uchimura said, “The ensembles that place or win the American Prize, get a lot bragging rights.” Uchimura has been conducting the Orchestra since 1998. He is an accomplished cellist with degrees from Juilliard and Cleveland Institute of Music. He was also named 2010 Educator of the Year by the Michigan String Teachers Association. The Symphony Orchestra at Western Michigan University was founded in 1945 and Uchimura is its 7th conductor.
Peabody Institute of Music, associated with John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, has one of the premier music programs in the country. Out of this are selected their finest graduate and undergraduate students to form the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. They perform six to seven concerts every year and have won the ASCAP Award for the Adventuresome Programming of Contemporary Music no less than 13 times. Their conductor, Hajime Teri Murai, has an impressive career as well. He has picked up 11 ASCAP awards himself, 6 of which were with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. Murai gave the first performance in English of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar” and in 1987 , he was a semi-finalist in the Leopold Stokowski Conducting Competition. Mr. Murai also conducted the Peabody Symphony to win 2nd prize in the American Prize college orchestral division in 2015. The Baltimore Sun has called the orchestra’s performance “exhilarating.”
Lamont Symphony Orchestra is a select group of students that audition to play in the symphony at the Lamont School of Music associated with the University of Denver. The success of their conductor, Lawrence Golan, explains the achievements of the orchestra. Mr. Golan has degrees from two of the most prestigious music schools in the world, Jacob’s School of Music and New England Conservatory of Music. He has won ten ASCAP Awards, five Global Music Awards, three American Prize awards, three Downbeat Magazine Awards, and two Prestige Music Awards. After a four year highly successful jaunt with The Phoenix Symphony, Music Director Michael Christie said of Golan that he “is a programmer of virtually unprecedented creativity and scope.” In 2012 Golan was named the Grand Prize Winner of The American Prize for Orchestral Programming. The artists that he has worked with include Leonard Bernstein, Joshua Bell, Frank Sinatra and Kenny G. As conductor of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra, he has led the Symphony to win an ASCAP Award for the Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music 6 out of the last 8 years. Golan and the Lamont Symphony Orchestra have won Downbeat Magazine’s award for Best College Symphony Orchestra twice, in 2003 and 2012.
The Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra of the Wheaton Conservatory of Music is an all-undergraduate symphony which has performed all genres of music. The orchestra was invited in 2012 to play for the College Orchestra Directors Association national conference at Northwestern University. It also performed in Orchestra Hall, Chicago in 2006 and 2011. Daniel Sommerville, the conductor of the symphony since 1994, led them to win third place in the college/university division American Prize in 2012. The prize put the Symphony on the map as one of the best in the United States. Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra regularly tours the United States and recently toured southern California in March.
Yale Symphony Orchestra
New Haven, Connecticut
The Yale Symphony Orchestra is widely considered to be one of the most impressive University Orchestras and has earned its reputation through hard work and vision. Founded in 1965 by a small group of students, the Symphony has become one of the premier under-graduate symphonies in America sharing the stage with Yo-Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax and others. The orchestra has proven itself in rising to the challenge of performing new music by premiering works such as Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in 1973, Debussy’s Khamma and works by Benjamin Britten and Charles Ives. The YSO has had many fine conductors including their present conductor, since 2005, Toshiyuki Shimada. Shimada has worked with great artists including Itzhak Perlman, Johnny Cash and Andre Watts. He was named Ariel Musician of the Year in 2003 by Ariel Records and received the ASCAP award in 1989. Shimada has released multiple recordings and has studied with some of the most talented conductors including Leonard Bernstein. Together, Shimada and the Yale Symphony Orchestra have successfully toured the Republic of Turkey, gaining media coverage which included CNN and Turkish National Television. The Yale Symphony Orchestra has also performed many times at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.