What is a symphony orchestra?

“Orchestras are like people.  They’re the sonic embodiment of their community.”

Simon Rattle, English conductor.

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The definition of an “orchestra” seems to have morphed from the ancient Greek’s designation of the place in the theater where the musicians played to the modern day characterization of any substantial assemblage of musician, such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the Electric Light Orchestra, or the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Some ensembles stick with the title “orchestra” only—like the above mentioned groups.  Others, like those in Delaware or Chicago, go with “symphony” and “orchestra,” but in casual conversation are almost always referred to only as “symphony.”

“Symphony” (from Greek for basically “sounding good together”) has come to mean a group of musicians who spend their time playing concert music, rather than, say, dance music, or background music.  That’s why opera companies and ballet companies generally don’t call their musical back-up bands “symphonies,” but orchestras: Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra….

Then there are the “philharmonic” – which is essentially another name for symphony and another means to differentiate orchestras.

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“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”

W.C. Fields