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.
St. Olaf Orchestra
“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.”
Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra
Ithaca, New York
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.
New York, New York
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
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 Conservatory of Music Symphony Orchestra
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
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.
Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra
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.
New York, New York
The Juilliard Orchestra is made up of all instrumental majors in the Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs at Juilliard School in New York City. They are led by many well known guest conductors including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Marin Alsop and John Adams. Their regular conductor is Alan Gilbert, very talented and highly accomplished as well. Maestro Gilbert grew up in New York City to musical parents and studied at Harvard, New England Conservatory, Curtis Institute and Juilliard. In 1994 he won both the Georg Solti prize and first prize at the International Competition for Musical Performance in Geneva. At an exciting concert at Carnegie Hall last year, Juilliard Orchestra performed one of Gilbert’s own arrangements of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, as well as works by Schumann and Berg. Anthony Tommasina of the New York Times called the performance “vibrant and accomplished.” He also reported that “the hall was packed; the final ovation was tremendous and deserved.” Recently, Itzhak Perlman and the Juilliard Orchestra performed at Harris Theater in January of 2016 to resounding success.
Oberlin Symphony Orchestra
The Oberlin Orchestra is comprised of students from the Oberlin Conservatory which has a high reputation for producing some of the finest artists that musical audiences across the country have appreciated for decades. The Conservatory has been deemed a “national treasure” by the Washington Post. The Oberlin Orchestra has had a long exposure to some of the greatest conductors in the world including Igor Stravinsky, Sir Simon Rattle and John Williams. The Orchestra’s recent performances include appearances at Walt Disney Concert Hall and a critically acclaimed performance at Carnegie Hall conducted by Robert Spano. The New York Times called the performance “stellar.” Oberlin Orchestra also performed throughout China during a 13-day tour in 2005. When Sir Simon Rattle conducted the Orchestra in 2004, music critic Donald Rosenberg described the performance as “stamped by magnificence.” Rosenberg included the Oberlin-Rattle performance of a Mahler Symphony during the concert in his list of top 10 memorable events from the 2004 concert season.
Cornell Symphony Orchestra
Ithaca, New York
The Cornell Symphony Orchestra has a lofty reputation, especially since it is not part of a Conservatory, but rather made up of students from Cornell University. Under the direction of Chris Younghoon Kim, Cornell Symphony Orchestra won an ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming in the Collegiate Orchestras category for 5 years in a row. In 2012, they took the top award in this category. The Symphony also won third place in the 2014 American Prize in Orchestra Performance – college/university division. They were also finalists in the same year in Orchestral Programming and Conducting. The Cornell Symphony Orchestra has been part of Cornell University since 1905 when it was founded with no financial backing. They were left with a $20,000 endowment in 1919, the interest of which is still supporting the orchestra today. Their conductor, Chris Kim, has been with the Orchestra since 2004 and has directed them through many outstanding concerts. Before coming to Cornell, Kim taught at Tufts University and served as resident conductor of the Mozart Society Orchestra at Harvard University. In 2015, Chris Kim won 2nd place in the Conducting division of the American Prize.
Stanford Symphony Orchestra
Two months after Stanford University opened its doors in 1891, the first Stanford orchestra of 11 members was formed. Their symphony orchestra now consists of over 90 very talented members. The orchestra performs with famous artists from around the world, including Van Cliburn gold medalist Jon Nakamatsu, and with their own highly accomplished faculty members. Students in the orchestra receive coaching directed by musicians from the San Francisco Symphony and Conservatory of Music. The interim director for the SSO is Dr. Anna Wittstruck who has been conducting the summer Stanford Symphony Orchestra for six consecutive seasons. Dr. Wittstruck has conducted concerts across the world and in 2013, she conducted the first ever symphonic concert on Catalina Island. Several years ago, the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, performing with Jon Nakamatsu at the piano, initiated a Beethoven event. At this performance, a review said that toward the end of the performance “conductor and orchestra tapped into Beethoven’s drama and forward thrust, driving through those final triumphant chords, and the audience jumped to its feet to cheer this first ‘Beethoven Project’ event.” Since the fall of 2012 the Stanford Symphony Orchestra rehearses and performs in the Bing Concert Hall, its new performance venue.
University of North Texas Symphony Orchestra
The University of North Texas Symphony Orchestra has been playing concerts regularly for over 70 years. Averaging 10 years per conductor, the symphony has only had 7 conductors since its beginning. The Symphony has been under the direction of David Itkin since 2008. Maestro Itkin has a varied and highly accomplished background. He served as an associate conductor of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra from 1988 to 1993 during which time he was made Honorary Lieutenant Governor of the State of Alabama for outstanding service to the arts. In 1993 he began his 17 year tenure as conductor of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. He has been guest conductor of over 40 symphony orchestras across the United States and has also produced film scores and an oratorio that was released on CD in 2008. He acquired his degrees from Eastman School of Music. Maestro Itkin and the University of North Texas Symphony Orchestra together have performed 8 stellar seasons of music.
USC Thornton Symphony
Los Angeles, California
Part of the University of Southern California, Thornton School of Music boasts one the very best student orchestras on the West Coast. Founded in the early 20th century, Thorton Symphony Orchestra has a been a prominent musical ensemble in the Los Angeles area for over one hundred years. Thorton’s current conductor is Carl St. Clair and the symphony has collaborated with top conductors, composers and musicians, including, for example, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Henrick Górecki, himself, conducted the Thornton Orchestra in the West Coast premier of his third symphony in 1997, calling it the best ensemble he had worked with personally. Thornton also frequently cooperates with the Thornton School of Music Opera. Finally, Thornton provides many opportunities for up and coming student composers to have their music performed. Thornton presents a yearly event called New Music for Orchestra which has premiered more than 125 compositions. Often these compositions have led to commissions and performances by professional orchestras.
Curtis Symphony Orchestra
The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia boasts not only a hallowed history of excellence in musical education with an remarkable list of graduates, it also has one of the most impressive college symphony orchestras in America. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra is not only a great college orchestra, it is “an orchestra that any city would be lucky to have as its professional ensemble.” Curtis’ very selective and highly competitive admissions results in a student orchestra of well-trained musicians. Hosting conductors from top symphonies throughout the United States and Europe, Curtis Symphony Orchestra has performed major works in top venues. Many Curtis graduates have gone on to assume positions in top professional orchestras throughout the world.
Eastman School Symphony Orchestra
Rochester, New York
Eastman School of Music, which is highly competitive and one of the most highly regarded music schools, has a Symphony Orchestra that is reflective of its reputation. The Symphony is made up of first and second year undergraduates, but at a place like Eastman, where the motto is “Eat, Sleep, Music,” this doesn’t mean a shabby group of musicians. Founded in 1921 and attached to the University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music produces some of the greatest musicians in our country. The Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Neil Varon, who has conducted all over the world. Varon studied at Juilliard and after working throughout Europe and Asia began conducting at Eastman in 2002. Neil Varon and the ESSO perform 8 concerts a year most of which feature a concerto with an award winning Eastman student.
Princeton University Orchestra
Princeton, New Jersey
Princeton University Orchestra’s roots go back to 1896 when a group of musicians from the New York Symphony and Philharmonic Societies gave a series of concerts at Alexander Hall on the university campus. Since then, the orchestra has developed into an outstanding university orchestra, made up almost entirely of student artists. Under the direction of conductor Michael Pratt, Princeton University Orchestra has gained a reputation “as one of the finest university orchestras in the United States.” The orchestra is known for both excellent interpretation and musicianship. Under Pratt, Princeton University Orchestra has performed an impressive range of orchestral and operatic compositions as well as collaborated with on-campus arts events, such as Prokofiev’s Le Pas d’Acier and Boris Godunov.
The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra
The Harvard-Radcliffe Symphony Orchestra is the oldest Symphony Orchestra in the United States. Perhaps not surprising, since it is made up of students from the oldest university. Though Harvard was established in 1636, it still took over 150 years to begin a music group. This honor belongs to the Pierian Sodality, a group of 6 young Harvard men who, in 1808, decided to have regular meetings and to serenade the local and not so local belles. From an entry by the Sodality in 1840:
It came to pass in the reign of Simon the King, that the Pierians did meet… and lo! A voice was heard saying, Let us go serenading…and the fame of the Pierians did wax exceedingly great, and did reach all the places round about Cambridge.
As can be seen, the group was lively and eventually was whittled down to one lone flautist who then persuaded a duet partner and grew from there. It is said that around 1950 the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra “stopped making history and started making music.” The orchestra’s quality and reputation grew and they toured the world from Mexico and Canada to Europe, Brazil, the Middle East and Asia. Their current conductor is Frederico Cortese, an accomplished maestro who has studied in Rome and Vienna. His guest conducting has taken him to Britain, Europe, Australia and other places around the world where he has been highly acclaimed.