Well of course there are things that are hard to measure. The speed of a piece, the changes in volume and the way the conductor expresses what the piece of music is all about.
But beneath all these is a simple measure of technical ability and without a fine technique the biggest heart will not communicate to the listener. Here are three tests (there are many others) that will tell you if an orchestra is in the premier league or second division.
Listen carefully to the strings shooting off after the slow opening. You will be surprised how many orchestras can’t play together!
2. Beethoven – Symphony 1
Here the strings and woodwind are supposed to start at exactly the same time. If you care to listen to a few examples of the openeing of this symphony you will hear only a few that actually start together.
Admittedly there are some acoustic issues with some recordings that exaggerate the distance between the folk playing woodwind (the long notes) and the folk playing the strings (the short notes that arrive at the beginning and end of the long notes) but even so it is not difficult – some bands I think are too sophisticated to play in time together!
Here is a wonderful test. Listen to the very last two notes of the Andante (the second movement) of this symphony. Just two notes in the middle of silence, very short but intended to be played precisely together. More than often not they come out like someone dropping their shopping all over the floor! One band that really nails it is Budapest Festival Orchestra. Love them!
Some bands seem to think that playing precisely together when they are asked to is an affront. Check this video where the ‘legendary’ Leonard Bernstein conducts the ‘legendary’ Vienna Philharmonic. http://youtu.be/n5jBVD1cztA At 03:50 he gives a clear beat and the orchestra wait a bit then ‘plink’, another beat, wait..wait – ‘plunk’!