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L.A. vs. Boston: Which has the largest orchestra operation?

Culture Monster tried to get a little orchestral dust-up going this week but didn't get far. 

It began when something jumped out at us from a document that no one would think harbored any fighting words: the Boston Symphony's most recent nonprofit tax return.

In Part III, "Statement of Program Service Accomplishments," the IRS asks groups to describe what they've done to justify their tax-exempt status and their donors' generosity. In its written response, the Boston Symphony noted that it performs more than 200 annual classical and pops concerts, concluding that, "all told, the BSO is the world's largest orchestral operation."

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Since we'd just been poring over the Los Angeles Philharmonic's own tax filings (for this story),  we knew that this claim was debatable on economic grounds.

In recent years, the Phil's annual spending has exceeded the Boston Symphony's. In the latest round of financial reporting, for the 2011-12 fiscal year, it was no contest. The Angelenos spent $108.4 million to the Bostonians' $85.8 million. The L.A. operation's budget was 26% bigger.

The Phil's tax return notes that its performances and presentations generated 912,673 ticket sales in 2011-12 -- including 594,676 for orchestral concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall, and 17,251 on tour.

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But Sophie Jefferies, the L.A. Phil's spokeswoman, sidestepped our invitation to get into a debate over which orchestra is indeed “the world’s largest” -- or at least America’s.

“The budget numbers are the budget numbers,” she wrote in an email. “We are supportive of all our colleagues in the symphonic world.”

Further number-crunching uncovered statistics that might bolster the New Englanders' assertion.

The BSO reported having spent $58.4 million on orchestral performances during its fiscal year. The Phil, which also presents world music, jazz and pop by touring artists, spent $44 million on orchestral performances, including its own tours. The Boston Symphony had a $380 million endowment to help fund its endeavors, dwarfing the Los Angeles Philharmonic's $156.8 million.

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While the Metropolitan Opera might not appreciate being drawn into this, it, too, could stake a claim. It spent $317.4 million in 2011-12, and if as little as 18.4% of that flowed to its orchestra pit, that would trump the Boston Symphony's assertion that it's "the world's largest orchestral operation," at least in spending on orchestral performances.

All of which raises the question of whether some straightforward grappling for bragging rights among top orchestras might not be such a bad thing.

Too many classical music organizations' tax returns have had painful bottom lines lately, causing worry over whether symphonic music is sustainable given the huge costs. With music education eliminated from many public schools, it's not getting any easier to cultivate the followers any art form needs if it's to flourish.

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Musical face-offs hardly are foreign to the classical world. Young soloists go at it, generating considerable attention, in contests such as the Cliburn Competition in Texas and the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia.

Might it be worthwhile to stage a battle of the really big bands? Develop an "Orchestral Idol" series? Settling symphonic bragging rights with bows and batons in hand, amid attendant media chatter, might be hucksterism. It would probably be indecorous. But if the music was good, the personalities gained a brighter spotlight, and the public ear leaned in, perhaps it would be worth it.

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