STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A brand new ranking of the world's symphony orchestras hits the newsstands today, courtesy of the British publication, Gramophone. At the number-one spot is Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The number-one U.S. orchestra may come as a surprise to some, as NPR's Tom Huizenga reports.

TOM HUIZENGA: Gramophone asked classical-music critics from the U.S., Europe and Asia to come up with their top 20 favorite orchestras. After the lists were compiled, the Chicago Symphony came out on top in the U.S. Gramophone editor James Inverne says it beat out some tough competition.

Mr. JAMES INVERNE (Editor, Gramophone): Well, actually, this will be a surprise because a lot of people in America would, as a knee-jerk reaction, I suppose, would rank the New York Philharmonic at the top, or indeed, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which has fantastic technical standards. But Chicago beat a further six orchestras which were in our top 20 from America.

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HUIZENGA: Inverne was inspired to conduct the poll because, even though the level of playing is rising, he says there are far fewer orchestras these days that have an immediately identifiable sound.

Mr. INVERNE: It's the equivalent, if you like, of having fewer great charismatic actors, and many more kind of good-looking actors who are fine playing everything, but you don't want to take away their "King Lear."

HUIZENGA: So, what's Chicago's unique, identifiable sound?

Mr. INVERNE: Chicago famously has this incredible brass sound, and it just pins you to the back of your seat.

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Mr. INVERNE: The way that that brass sound shoots out exemplifies a lot about the orchestra, which is a sense of adventure in music-making.

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Mr. JOHN VON RHEIN (Classical Music Critic, Chicago Tribune): Not to sound too Chicago chauvinistic, but the rankings confirm what those of us here in Chicago have felt for some time.

HUIZENGA: John von Rhein is the classical-music critic for the Chicago Tribune. He says not only is the 107-year-old Chicago Symphony in good health sonically, but also financially: something of a rarity for orchestras these days.

Mr. VON RHEIN: As of June 30, the orchestra not only balanced its books, but turned up a modest surplus. They reported strong fundraising, ticket sales exceeding 85 percent, which is high for American orchestras.

HUIZENGA: While many American orchestras may be struggling financially, they are sounding good, at least according to Gramophone. Seven of the world's top 20 in the new ranking are U.S. orchestras. And for James Inverne, that's good news, much better, at least, than the din of backstage drama that sometimes rises above the sound of the music.

Mr. INVERNE: Some of the time it feels like what we're hearing above everything else about the American orchestral scene is all the gossip and the intrigue and the back-biting and conductors being ousted and critics being shuffled around, all of this kind of thing, but when all's said and done, you still make some fantastic music.

HUIZENGA: Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

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