Is Budapest the new world capital of orchestral music?

Is Budapest the new world capital of orchestral music?


norman lebrecht

November 30, 2022

From a reflection by our correspondent Alexandra Ivanoff:

ince I moved to Budapest in 2015, the constant question from Hungarians is: “Why on earth would you move here?” My answer is “the music life is like no other city in the world” — an answer that usually elicits confused stares from the questioner. My response to them is: “How many professional symphony orchestras does Budapest have?”

Here is the list of 12 professional orchestras (in no particular order):

MÁV Symphony Orchestra
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra
Concerto Budapest
Budafok Dohnányi Orchestra
Zugló Symphony Orchestra
Óbuda Symphony Orchestra
Liszt Chamber Orchestra
Pannon Philharmonic
Orfeo Orchestra/Purcell Choir
Hungarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Hungarian National Opera Orchestra

I then pose the question to the questioner(s): How many orchestras do you think New York City has? The answer is: one! That answer is the same for Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston. And none of them are supported by state or federal governments…

Read on here.


    • Nicholas says:

      I had no idea how deeply embeded music education is in Hungary’s institutions. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. The El Sistema philosopy of music in Venezuela will, hopefully, achieve the same success. Music education is the secret sauce and should be mandatory in public schools for building future professional orchestras in the country where I live.

  • Jonathan Z says:

    There seems to be a lack of impartiality here. Alexandra says that London has four professional orchestras. Off the top of my head I can name 11, excluding original instrument bands:

    London Philharmonic
    Royal Philharmonic
    BBC Symphony
    Covent Garden Opera
    English National Opera
    London Mozart Players
    Academy of St Martins in the Fields
    English Chamber
    Orchestra of St John’s Smith Smith Square
    London Sinfonietta

    Any more any one?

  • Tristan says:

    does no one understand its not the quantity but the quality…
    crazy world
    Look at Vienna around the corner! Nothing in Budapest comes close to anything in Vienna so hope you double check
    Anyhow good if many people are employed in music, that’s definitely a plus

    • Mick the Knife says:

      I heard the Budapest Festival Orchestra recently in the US and, at the minimum, it does come close to the VPO.

    • Pedro says:

      Yes. They have one of the world’s worst conductors. A guy named Iván Fischer who once decided to put the members of the chorus of Beethoven 9th among the audience. In my case, I just heard the two basses who were standing behind me. A shame for everyone concerned, including the Konzerthaus.

      • Steven Rogers says:

        “They have one of the world’s worst conductors.”

        He’s not. Even if that is what he did. His Mahler and everything else I’ve heard has been top notch.

        • PapaHaydn says:

          I played with him, he just tries to be original… Nothing solid there(my opinion). He’s brother Adam is totally another story. Professional, inteligent, with good taste.

    • William Osborne says:

      Nonsense. The Hungarian orchestras are excellent and quite comparable to Vienna and other cities.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      The Budapest Festival Orchestra is easily better than any Vienna Orchestra but the Philharmonic.

    • Timmy says:


    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      It’s not so easy… And it’s for me a big mistake (the Berliner from exemple didn’t do) the Wiener did to never have developped a real relationchip with Ivan Fischer.

    • Brahms rules says:

      You are mistaken, if it would be about quality then let live 30 orchestras in the whole world and see what happens. Is it really important that all orchestras play like Concertgebo or Los Angeles and below that nothing deserve to exist? Think just for a minute about the consequences.

    • Another Orchestral Musician says:

      Lol. BFO is right up there with Vienna Phil.

  • Adrienne says:

    Yes, that’s all very well, but are they diverse?

  • Larry says:

    Are those 12 all full-time, year round orchestras? New York City has the Philharmonic, Met Opera, NY City Ballet Orchestra plus American Symphony, American Composers Orchestra, Little Orchestra Society, Queens Symphony, Riverside Symphony. Maybe 1 or 2 others I’m not remembering?

  • DMH says:

    Your correspondent is completely wrong about the number of orchestras in those US cities. There are multiple orchestras in each of them.

    • William Osborne says:

      Many with extremely paltry seasons while the orchestras in Europe usually have full seasons with regular performances.

    • Potter Herald says:

      Boston has BSO and BPO at least. But have a look at Russia. In Moscow there are like 20 orchestras and 20 more that’s being gathered from time to time

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Yes, but the difference is that many of them are semi-professional – meaning that only ‘ringers’ get paid – or are fully voluntary. In some cases, the players actually pay to play. Government subsidies in the U.S. don’t pay for multiple orchestras and opera companies within a city. Even the big orchestras and opera companies have to do their own fund raising, and need to come up with sizeable endowments to assure themselves of future operations. In many towns, even the musician’s union trust fund monies have dried up for supporting municipal bands. For classical musicians in the U.S., you’re best bet if you don’t get into a big-name orchestra or opera company that pays well, is to go into the military bands and orchestras. That, and teaching – lots and lots of teaching. Many very good instrumentalists have day jobs, and then pursue their musical interests on nights and weekends for personal enrichment. It’s not ideal, but there it is. Given the political climate and its proximity to Putin’s Russia, I don’t think I’d want to depend on Hungary for a weekly paycheck. Then again, I’m not young and adventurous.

    • Dan Beckmann says:

      Indeed, Los Angeles has:
      LA Philharmonic
      LA Chamber Orchestra
      Pacific Symphony
      Pasadena Symphony
      New West Symphony Orchestra
      Culver City Symphony
      Long Beach Symphony
      San Bernardino Symphony
      Santa Monica Symphony

      There’s more government support than you might think – the LA Phil lists the following governmental donors: County of Los Angeles ($200-500k), City of LA ($25-50k), and the NEA ($75k).

      By the way, how many concerts do those 12 orchestras in Budapest play? LA may have one principal orchestra (while London has, say 4, and Berlin has, say 9) but it plays 3-4 services most weekends. That’s almost 10,000 possible attendees to each program (not counting the Hollywood Bowl!).

      • William Osborne says:

        The orchestras in Budapest and the rest of Europe play far more concerts than the list of pick-up orchestras performing in rental facilities that you mention.

        • Barry Guerrero says:

          Yes, William; but given how large the four counties that make up ‘L.A.’ truly are, having orchestras play in distantly located theaters and halls isn’t a bad thing. Besides, the Segerstam Concert Hall in Orange County isn’t bad at all. I’ve been there. Cal State University Northridge has a really nice concert facility as well. It truly isn’t that dire here. We’re well used to the idea that government isn’t going to support everything we’d like to have. Seems to me that they’re having those kinds of conversations most everywhere these days too. I’m not defending it – it is what it it is, and there’s no point in crying on and on about the govt. not providing a living for the never ending parade of musician want-a-be’s.

          • Ceasar says:

            Thank you for vouching for the LA classical music scene…someone had to…

          • William Osborne says:

            Yes, the population of the LA metro area is twice the population of Austria which has 16 full time orchestras. Similar story for many European countries. You defeatist attitude is an example of how deeply brainwashed Americans are. With their antiquated 18th century system of government, and the extreme limits of a two party corrupted state, they can’t even imagine having effective government.

          • anon says:

            Putin’s Russia is also deeply corrupt (not even a one-party state), and vastly more supportive of orchestras with government dollars (whether from the government directly or from the oligarchs) than the US (albeit we in the US have a more individual choice in the matter through the tax-deductability of charitable donations, so that’s another sort of government support that hasn’t been raised yet). What in any of the previous statements do you think were “defeatist”?

  • Random hungarian says:

    That sounds great, not so most of those hungarian orchestras. Fischer’s Festival Orchestra is truly world class, the rest might give you headaches on a bad day..

  • William Osborne says:

    Alexandra is correct. Budapest has nine full time orchestras. Most major cities in continental Europe have several ***52-week season orchestras counting their paid vacations which are usually 4 to 6 weeks,*** while most American cities cannot maintain even one 52 week orchestra. Don’t let American bluster fool you. If they have multiple orchestras in a city it is only because all those aside from the main symphony orchestra have very limited seasons and low budgets. And outside of about the top 40 orchestras, the orchestras in most regional cities have very limited seasons. The New Mexico Philharmonic, for example, pays its tutti strings about $3000 per year even after 30 years of service.

    Even some cities in less rich countries like Mexico City and Caracas have multiple full time orchestras. Moscow has 12, London 8, Paris at least 6, Minsk 8, Munich 7, Vienna 7, Berlin 7, Prague 8, Stockholm 3, Budapest 9, Madrid 4, Barcelona 2, Athens 5, Bucharest 5, Caracas at least 6, and Mexico City at least 5. Here’s a list of these orchestras. Corrections welcomed. Even Tokyo has 8 full time orchestras.

    Here’s a list of examples:

    + Moscow Chamber Orchestra
    + Moscow City Symphony Orchestra
    + Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra
    + Moscow State Symphony Orchestra
    + Moscow Symphony Orchestra
    + Moscow Virtuosi
    + National Philharmonic of Russia
    + Russian National Orchestra
    + Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
    + State Symphony Capella of Russia
    + State Symphony Cinema Orchestra
    + Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra
    (Moscow also has more opera performances per year than any other city in the world, including Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and London. Meanwhile, New York is no longer even in the top 10.)

    + London Symphony Orchestra
    + London Philharmonic
    + Royal Philharmonic
    + Philharmonia
    + BBC Symphony Orchestra
    + BBC Concert Orchestra
    + Royal Opera Orchestra
    + English National Opera Orchestra
    (There are several other worldclass orchestras in London that are not full time such as the London Sinfonietta, English Chamber Orchestra, and Academy of St Martin’s in the Field.)

    + L’Orchestre National de Radio-France
    + Orchestre de Paris
    + Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
    + L’Orchestre de l’Opéra de Paris
    + Ensemle Intercontemporain
    + Orchestre de Chambre de Paris
    + Orchestre des Concerts Pasdeloup.
    + Orchestre Colonne,
    + Orchestre Lamoureux
    (The Paris Opera Orchestra has 170 members since the services must be rotated to meet demand. The last two orchestras are more marginal and may not be full time.)

    + Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
    + Bavarian Radio Orchestra
    + Munich Philharmonic
    + Bavarian State Opera Orchestra
    + Gärtnerplatz Opera Orchestra
    + Munich Symphoniker
    + Munich Chamber Orchestra

    + Vienna Philharmonic
    + Vienna Symphony Orchestra
    + Vienna State Opera Orchestra
    + Vienna State Radio Orchestra
    + Volksoper Orchestra
    + Vienna Klang Forum
    + Tonkünstlerorchester
    (The VPO and State Opera Orchestra use the same personnel, but the ensemble has 149 positions so that they can rotate the services. I think there might be other orchestras in the city I don’t know about.)

    + Berliner Philharmoniker
    + Konzerthausorchester Berlin
    + Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
    + Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
    + Orchester der Staatsoper Unter den Linden/Staatskapelle Berlin
    + Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin
    + Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin

    +Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
    + Czech National Symphonic Orchestra
    +Prague Symphony Orchestra “F.O.K.”
    +Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra
    +National Theatre Opera Orchestra
    +The Capitol Prague Opera Orchestra
    +Prague Film Orchestra
    +Prague Chamber Philharmonic

    +Royal Stockholm Philharmonic
    +Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
    +Royal Opera House
    +Stockholm Chamber Orchestra

    +Budapest Festival Orchestra
    +Budapest Philharmonic
    +Hungarian National Philharmonic
    +Dohnányi Orchestra Budafok
    +Hungarian State Opera Orchestra
    +Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
    +Concerto Budapest
    +Danubia Orchestra
    +Hungarian Railway Symphony

    St. Petersburg
    + Honored Philharmonic Orchestra
    + Philharmonic Academic Symphony Orchestra
    + St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra
    + A Capella Symphony Orchestra
    + Symphony Orchestra “Classics”
    + Governors Symphony Orchestra
    + Mikhailovsky Theater
    + St. Petersburg Opera Theater
    + Children’s Philharmonic Orchestra
    + The Tauric Symphony Orchestra
    (There are also four orchestras of Russian folk instruments)

    + Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid (royal opera)
    + Orquesta Sinfónica de la Radio y Televisión Española
    + Orquesta Nacional de España
    + Orquesta de la comunidad de madrid

    + Orquestra Simfónica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya
    + Orquestra Simfónica del Gran Teatre del Liceu” (opera)

    + State Orchestra of Athens
    + Orchestra of Athens
    + National Opera
    + Radio Symphony Orchestra
    + Philharmonia Orchestra
    + Armonia Atenea

    + State Orchestra of Thessaloniki
    + Orchestra of Thessaloniki
    + New Orchestra of Thessaloniki

    + National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre Orchestra
    + Belarusian State Academic Musical Theatre Orchestra
    + National Academic Concert Orchestra (jazz/pop)
    + Presidential Orchestra of the Republic of Belarus
    + State Academic Symphony Orchestra
    + State Chamber Orchestra
    + State Academic Zhynovich Folk Instruments Orchestra
    + State Radio Symphony Orchestra

    + The George Enescu Philharmonic
    + The Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra
    + The National Romanian Opera Orchestra
    + Radio Chamber Orchestra
    + Bucharest Operetta and Musical Orchestra
    Caracas, Venezuela
    +Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela
    +Orquesta Filarmonica de Venezuela
    +Orquesta Sinfónica Municipal de Caracas
    +Orquesta Sinfónica Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho
    +Orquesta Sinfónica Juan José Landaeta
    +Orquesta Sinfónica Simon Bolívar A
    +Orquesta Sinfónica Simon Bolívar
    +Orquesta Sinfónica Barroca

    Mexico City
    + Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional,
    + Filarmónica de la Ciudad de México
    + Orq. Filarmónica de la UNAM
    + Orq. Sinfónica del IPN
    + Orquesta del Teatro de Bellas Artes and
    Orquesta de Cámara de Bellas Artes
    There are also two youth orchestras that are seen by some as providing full time jobs.

    + The NHK Symphony Orchestra
    + Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra
    + Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra
    + Tokyo City Philharmonic
    + Japan Philharmonic
    + New Japan Philharmonic
    + Tokyo Philharmonic
    + Tokyo Symphony

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      Paris today is lucky with two very good new concert halls plus Dudamel and Mäkelä

    • Petros Linardos says:

      William, I largely agree with your arguments, but not with your lists of European orchestras. I can see quite a few part time full orchestras, not to speak of chamber orchestras.

    • MacroV says:

      With respect to Prague, only the Czech Philharmonic and Prague SO (FOK) are full-time, in the sense that they present a dozen or more subscription programs with multiple performances.

      The Czech National SO (and the Prague Philharmonic, probably what is meant by the Prague Chamber Phiharmonic – PKF) are freelance bands that play about 4 shows a year in Prague, and tour a bit.

      I’m not sure what they do with the rest of their time, but the Prague Radio Symphony also plays about a half-dozen one-off concerts each season.

      Never heard of several of these.

  • william osborne says:

    In addition to the list of cities with muliple full time orchestras I listed, we should not that by contrast very few US cities have even one full-time orchestra. And even these single, partial year, orchestras often face financial problems. Here is a list of US orchestras that have declared bankruptcy during my career: San Diego, Miami, Kansas City, Albuquerque, Syracuse, Tulsa, San Antonio, New Orleans, Denver, San Jose, Colorado Springs, Honolulu, Miami, and Philadelphia. When they manage to return, they are often depleted and their musicians demoralized. There is nothing in Europe comparable to this pattern of orchestral bankruptcies.

    Many more orchestras are in continual financial trouble even if they skirt bankruptcy. Miami has a metro population of 5.5 million, and is incredibly wealthy, but does not even have a professional symphony orchestra. (The New World Symphony is a training orchestra for students and young professionals that regularly rotates its personnel.)

    We can’t solve our problems with arts funding by living in a bubble of ideological delusions.

    (Don’t let people reach for a false comparison with the limited number of German orchestral closings after the wall came down which was an entirely different matter mostly due to redundancies caused by the wall. East Germany also had such a dense orchestral landscape it truly was excessive. This is no way compares to the patterns of bankruptcies in the USA.)

  • william osborne says:

    Also, Alexandra, don’t let yourself be detracted by the Fox News/Breitbart/Brexiteer people who frequent these pages with their blustering nonsense. Please keep us posted about the musical life of Hungary and Budapest.

  • CDG says:

    Are they actually salaried orchestras with a fixed core of full-time musicians, or does the same pool of freelance musicians appear under different ensemble names? The latter is common in London.

    Tokyo seems to have been omitted from this discussion and has, off the top of my head, at least 5 true independent orchestras:

    NHK Symphony
    Yomuri Nippon Symphony
    Japan Philharmonic
    New Japan Philharmonic
    Tokyo Symphony Orchestra

    • Brahms rules says:

      Except for Orfeo orchestra which is a period ensamble of freelancers and Pannon Phil. which actually belongs to the city of Pécs, yes, all of them full time orchestras with contracted members.

  • No way says:

    Yeah, who cares. All of those orchestras are subpar to NY Phil, not to mention many others, and most of them share many of the same underpaid, tired players. Plus the added bonus of living in an antisemitic, anti-gay state with crumbling infrastructure and a joke of an economy. Good luck with that.

    • IC225 says:

      The Budapest Festival Orchestra is not remotely inferior to the NY Philharmonic – rather the opposite.

      But yes, everything else you say is valid.

    • Brahms rules says:

      So good to talk with the conviction of an ignorant. I sincerely hope you have heard all of them and NY Phil like for years so you can write such a bunch of nonsense, which of course you haven’t.

      Naturally not all of them are world class but they don’t need to be, they serve the community and the ones sitting in the hall willing to listen and to have a good time, they care!

      Regarding the added bonus, yes, what a burden to live in such a place, but consider how worse and miserable would it be without orchestras and music schools doing their part to educate and fight against those issues?

      Thank you for your valuable contribution!

  • Peter Simmons says:

    As a retired NYC and formally very active musician, may I state that Music Education in NY is abysmal. The Budget cuts, the Woke hatred of White music, the TOTAL emphasis on the current, in my opinion, INSANE wokeness, only serves to remove our Cultural Heritages. Great that we are experiencing more diverse musical experiences, BUT, the desire to ridicule and eliminate “WHITENESS” in music is totally MarXist propagada! We ARE BETTER than this ABUSE!

  • Dr Tara Wilson says:

    I witnessed the Budapest Festival Orchestra play under Iván Fischer (two nights: both Mahler programmes) in Brugge recently – one of the finest conductors and most responsive orchestras I have ever seen! Certainly the finest Mahler 4! Fischer and the BFO were outstanding – world class!!

  • trumpetherald says:

    London, at least ten. New York, NYPO, Met, Orpheus, The Knights, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, American Composers Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonia, American Symphony, Riverside Symphony….

    • Another orchestral musician says:

      Yeah, how many people does Budapest have compared to London? 😉 Let alone how much money?

    • Pablo Rincon says:

      With two exceptions, most of these don’t play more than a handful of concerts per year.

      Just look at the calendar for the Budapest orchestras and the difference will become quite clear.

  • MacroV says:

    I don’t dispute that Budapest has a rich musical scene, but there’s a bit of apples-and-oranges here.

    New York has the Philharmonic, of course, and the MET is very much a full-time professional orchestra. And Carnegie Hall presents enough orchestras over a season to count as a third. Plus all sorts of part-time bands like St. Lukes, Orpheus, etc..

    Boston has a very rich musical scene; I lived there for three years and hardly ever went to the BSO yet heard lots of great music, including two excellent student orchestras at Harvard and NEC.

    Moscow may have a dozen orchestras, but when I lived there in the early 2000s and aggressively attended concerts, I think I heard eight bands; many others reputed to exist but never seemed to perform. Also, none played more than a dozen concerts a year in Moscow; collectively they added up to maybe two full-time orchestras, at best.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Hungary in in a deep economic crisis that is developing much worse by the action of the EU Commission. One can wonder how those 12 professional orchestras are funded.

  • Concertgebouw79 says:

    I have seen twice on tour the Budapest orchestra I have a ticket for 2023 for a concert with the great Rudy Buchbinder. For me there’s absolutly no doubts it’s one of 6 or 7 best orchestras in the world like many international standings showed during the last years and I was each time suprised by the fact that the tickets are not exepensive at all. It seems that the new concert hall is excellent. And I have nothing to add concerning the talent of Ivan the great.

  • Geoff says:

    The Santa Monica Symphony has 5 concerts this season. The Dec 5th one includes Stravinsky’s Firebird and Vaughan Williams Lark Ascending and (how about this) it is FREE!

  • Brahms rules says:

    Let’s clear something out here, Pannon Philharmonic is not an orchestra of Budapest but from Pécs. And Orfeo Orchestra is a period ensamble without contracts with the musicians, so freelancers.

    Anima Musicae Chamber Orchestra and Duna Symphony Orchestra are missing from the list though, those are also professional ensambles with contracted musicians.

    And just to let you all know, the so called new world capital had so many cuts in the last months that Óbudai Danubia is going on unpaid leave since January, the Opera had to reinvent their season and let musicians who recently won auditions without contract due to the 2 billion cut and all orchestras are canceling concerts and events outside their subscription concerts because halls are closing after the insane heating cost increase. So the world capital is more likely to become the world’s capital of hungry and frozen musicians.

    “I suggest resisting the reduction of cultural and educational budgets, despite the inflated prices on goods and services, and despite political maneuverings outside the borders. All denizens, including tourists, depend on live performances for their sanity and well-being, as well as for maintaining this nation’s unique and indispensable cultural profile that was so deftly demonstrated in New York.”

    Everything sounds beautiful when you talk about state subsided but when the state closes the water tap, then one suffers that there’s literally no other resources to survive as she says.

    This article would have come in handy a couple of decades ago, even more if it would suggest how does the orchestras in the world outside “állam bácsi” do look for their bread.

  • Harpist says:

    Well, wrong. NYC has 29, most famously the NYP and the MET orchestra since you are counting the opera orchestra in Budapest. And the MET orchestra gives orchestral performances and last I heard them they were astonishingly great in their first Bruckner ever. Then there is the great Orchestra of St. Luke’s and another 26:

  • Emilio says:

    As a fact it has more than 12 professional orchestras, and the level is quite good frankly.

    It was quite disappointing for me to listen to Staatskapelle Dresden last concert in Budapest, playing as a youth symphony orchestra, with salaries x5 higher than in Hungary public applauded out of education, but the level was terribly poor. None the less leaving aside great ensembles such as Anima Musicae (they played all 5 mozart concerti with David Grimaldi in one program)
    Plus the diversity of musical venues, from the operett theatre to the music house, to mupa, the National Theater, opera house, vigado theatre (in which Mahler premiered his first symphony) and list goes on.

    • Brahms rules says:

      Since I met Anima Musicae I consider they deserve sooo much more not only in Hungary but in the world scene, hope they get their deserved appreciation some day.

  • Michel Lemieux says:

    Nonsense. Los Angeles, for instance, has 3 internationally known orchestras (LA Phil, Pacific Symphony, and LA Chamber Orchestra). Among its second tier orchestras is the Pasadena Symphony which regularly features world-class soloists (this Sunday 12/11 Gil Shaham).

    For world-class classical music, my top cities would be Berlin and London, followed by NYC.