V.com weekend vote: Naming preference: Symphony, Philharmonic, Orchestra or other?

February 26, 2023, 1:04 PM · What is your naming preference: symphony, philharmonic, orchestra, or something else?

If you look at a list of orchestra names, they tend to fall into several different categories: symphony, philharmonic and orchestra. I thought it would be fun to talk about the different names that various orchestras carry and what they mean. Also, I'd invite you to share any history you know about various orchestras and how they came by their names. And by the way, they do tend to carry over to other languages, ie. "philharmonikier," "orchester" etc.

orchestras, symphonies, philharmonics

First a word about these words: as a name for an orchestra, "Symphony" is very often used in combination with "Orchestra" - as in "Symphony Orchestra." I suspect that this is because the dictionary definition of the word "symphony" by itself refers to "an elaborate musical composition for full orchestra." My old-fashioned Merriam-Webster English dictionary carries six definitions of the word, and "a symphony orchestra" or "orchestra concert" is low on the list, it's the fourth meaning. The fifth meaning interests me, it speaks to a harmonious combination of elements, musical or not.

So you could make the sanctimonious argument that a "Utah Symphony" would really actually be a composition for orchestra about the topic of Utah.

But come on. We talk about the "symphony" all the time, as being the orchestra in town, whatever its name. Even when I go to the LA Phil, I say, "I'm going to the symphony tonight." So while there are plenty of "Symphony Orchestras," (Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra....) there are also plenty who leave it at "symphony" for the official name: the Colorado Symphony, the Utah Symphony, the Omaha Symphony or the Houston Symphony.

The word "philharmonic" has a wonderful derivation: it comes from the Italian "filarmonico" or "loving harmony" and the French "philharmonique," which means the same thing. Love and harmony, what could be better? And the "philharmonics" include some of the biggies: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, etc..

Alternatively, some famously are simply "orchestra," like the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Gewandhaus Orchestra. To me, this is pretty bold, like saying, "Look, cut the fuss, we're simply THE orchestra."

And we can't forget to mention the London-based "Philharmonia Orchestra" - it combines "philharmonic" and "orchestra" but somewhat confusingly leaves off its geographic location!

And then there are some orchestras that don't use any of the names I've mentioned - the big one that comes to my mind is "The Knights" in New York City.

What are your thoughts about these various names for orchestras? Which naming device do you like best? Or does it matter to you? What do you know about the history of how your local orchestra, or other orchestras, got their names? Please participate in the vote and then share your thoughts on the subject!

* * *

Enjoying Violinist.com? Click here to sign up for our free, bi-weekly email newsletter. And if you've already signed up, please invite your friends! Thank you.


February 26, 2023 at 07:29 PM · I don't really care much. If they play well I am happy.

February 26, 2023 at 07:49 PM · I like just 'orchestra' because its direct, accurate and lacking in pretensions.

February 26, 2023 at 09:28 PM · I don't especially care. Mostly the names tend to say something about the history of the orchestra. "Philharmonic" usually (but not always) indicates that the orchestra was founded by some kind of music society. "Symphony," though technically just a descriptor saying the orchestra is large enough to play the standard symphonic repertoire, tends to be used for orchestras that were founded by other means.

And there are orchestras that use both names. Formally, the NY Phil is the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra.

February 26, 2023 at 10:22 PM · A favorite chamber orchestra that I found on YouTube goes by the Italian name «I Musici», i.e. "The Musicians." They've recorded quite a few works by Vivaldi.

February 26, 2023 at 11:00 PM · When an orchestra goes bankrupt, they're no longer allowed to use the old name, so having all these possible variations is quite useful. Once all of those possibilities have been exhausted, you can rename your city's band after the state, and begin the process anew.

Too pessimistic?

February 27, 2023 at 09:11 AM · Daniel - I Musici were something of a revolution in the performance practices of baroque music, espousing faster tempi, agile phrasing, smaller forces and audible continuo. It's largely due to their superb pioneering work (led for several years by the Spanish-born violinist Felix Ayo) that we seldom nowadays have symphonic performances of Bach, Vivaldi and Haendel.

EDITED to add: Many early music/baroque specialist groups do not identify with city names, opting instead for poetics: Apollo's Fire, L'Arpeggiata, Al Ayre Español, for example. I like this jolly use of the imagination!

February 27, 2023 at 01:20 PM · I wonder at the fuss. The problem that "Orchestral Music" has is that sense that it is somehow exclusive if not exclusionary. As it is we have so many different genre of music (just count the number of categories of Grammy Awards) that often feel like this is "our" music but not "your" music.

We need to take Duke Ellington's statement "If it sounds good, it is good" to heart.

February 27, 2023 at 01:53 PM · How about "In The Moment Musical Presentation Organization.".....?

February 27, 2023 at 04:50 PM ·

Well, there was the Beecham Pillharmonic ...

Some areas of London UK boast more than one orchestra, so both names get used in the same area. In Tottenham, the adult orchestra was first called the "Tottenham Municipal Orchestra", and when the Boroughs of Tottenham, Hornsey and Wood Green were combined by statute (Suggestions for a new name were elicited and suggestions included Hornham Green and Midnorthborough {one of my father's, the other being Greenhornham}. Haringey was the name chosen), the orchestra became the Haringey Symphony Orchestra, later to coalesce with others to form the North London Symphony Orchestra - There is also the North London Sinfonia and the spring concerts of the two are separated by a week. The youth version is the Haringey Young Philharmonic.

I suppose an orchestra specialising in avant garde could call itself the something Phobharmonic or something Cacophony (Actually, there IS a Cacophony Band).

My old physics master at school played the clarinet in two orchestras, one being the Royal Amateur orchestra, but the other being called "The Strolling Players" (There still is the London Mozart Players, which is a small professional orchestra).

February 27, 2023 at 05:10 PM · The only ones that annoy me -- an only a little -- are the ones where you can't even tell what kind of an act it is, like "The Knights." But I saw them here in Blacksburg (with Gil Shaham) and they were fantastic, so I'm inclined to give them a pass. Anyway, one needs arcane knowledge to recognize that the Count Basie Orchestra, or that ZZ Top is a rock trio.

February 27, 2023 at 06:35 PM · I like the name of the Baroque ensemble, "Tafelmusik." It's named after Telemann's "table music" but somehow to my English-speaking brain it sounds like a combination of "coffee" and "toffee" and "waffle" = wonderful tasty treat music!

February 27, 2023 at 07:52 PM · If Tafelmusik ever tours the South,they could try a series of Tafelmusik und Waffelhaus Kaffeekonzerte. There's a potential venue or two at every highway exit!

February 27, 2023 at 09:03 PM · There was tafelmusik decades (at least) before Telemann - I remember hearing on the radio tafelmusik by Scheidt (contemporary of Schütz and composer of the melody and figured bass of the lovely carol "O Little One Sweet" - Lyrics with metre iambic can be sung to it, but with slurs removed it will fit less regular metres, e.g., the original).

February 27, 2023 at 09:07 PM · It's worth noting, also, that the distinction between Band and Orchestra is getting eroded by the increasing sophistication of Minimalist composers.

March 2, 2023 at 08:44 PM · I chose "Symphony Orchestra", but that's probably because the premier orchestra here in British Columbia is the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. (Yes, when a Vancouverite refers to the VSO, he's probably not talking about a cheap violin.)

There is a Vancouver Philharmonic Orchestra, but it's an amateur group. (I've even played in it myself.) Other amateur orchestras in the area are the West Coast Symphony, the New Westminster Symphony Orchestra, and the Ambleside Orchestra (I'm a member of the latter).

I guess you can call an orchestra whatever you want - there seems to be no established standard for names.

Laurie, I too like Tafelmusik. (Their full name is Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.) I was fortunate enough to see a live performance of their Galileo Project with the late Jeanne Lamon. It was an absolute delight. They were selling a Galileo Project DVD in the lobby and I eagerly snapped up a copy; it's the next best thing to being there.

March 4, 2023 at 11:06 PM · I hadn’t thought much on this subject till now. I voted “Orchestra,” because that’s what I would pick if I were the one in charge of selecting a name. Two of America’s top ensembles that use this naming come to mind, already mentioned in the blog: Cleveland and Philadelphia. A friend of mine, originally from the Philadelphia metro area, referred to attending a concert as “going to the orchestra.”

Still, my first choice might not be an option if a town already had an orchestra and I had to name the next group. In light of this, two other major cities come to mind. Here in the USA we have the Boston Symphony and Boston Philharmonic. On the other side of “the Pond,” there are the London Symphony and London Philharmonic. I remember listening, at home during childhood, to recordings from my parents’ collection that had each of these last two names listed in the credits. I don’t know offhand which ensemble in each town was founded first - I’d have to look this up; but my guess is that the symphony orchestras came first and the philharmonics second.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings
Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings

National Symphony Orchestra
National Symphony Orchestra

Violins of Hope
Violins of Hope

Violinist.com Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program

Violinist.com Shopping Guide
Violinist.com Shopping Guide

Colburn School

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop



Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine