Sunday, February 11th, 2007

What Makes a Great Orchestra? (Or a Great City?)

The Financial Times had an article in their Weekend section this week on what makes a great orchestra. Now mind you, what they are talking about is the Urbanophile definition of great: being considered one of the world’s top ensembles. Why is it that the Berlin Symphony qualifies and maintains its stature generation through generation, despite new conductors, while other orchestras don’t?

The author goes on to consider several factors. A great conductor alone can’t do it. Many ensembles rose to prominence under a great conductor only to fall back into the pack when he left. Obviously, having a first class concert hall, touring on the world’s great stages, and having lots of money are part of it, but again, many orchestras that have all that don’t enjoy the same reputation. The author’s conclusion is that it takes a certain something else, a certain type of proprietary sound that gives a unique feel to the orchestra. And of course, once you’re in the club, it’s difficult to get yourself ejected. Reputation begets reputation.

I think a similar question is worth pondering about cities. What is it that makes a great city? All too often those who are trying to take their city to the next level treat game of big city as if it is about a laundry list of amenities: pro sports teams, a fancy new symphony hall, rail transit, more people, downtown lofts, etc. All of these things are good. You can even argue that having at least some of them are necessary. Sustained leadership over a long period of time is critical. But I’d argue that it is something else that makes a city truly great. It’s that certain unique feel, a special culture, etc. Something that sets it apart from every other city with an NFL team and light rail line. Take away the sports teams, BART, and even the symphony, and San Francisco is still a great city. The things that make it great are hard to take away. So the next time someone argues that their city need X, where X is something supposedly all real big cities have, remember that while X might be nice, just having a long list of X’s isn’t going to make your city truly great. To get there, you have to dig a little deeper.

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The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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