What’s the best orchestra in the world? These days just about everybody puts the Berlin Philharmonic at the top of the list, and even those who’d rank it second or third have to admit it’s been consistently excellent for far longer than any of its peers: founded in 1882, the orchestra achieved greatness within the decade under the baton of Hans von Bülow. Arthur Nikisch maintained it during his term as its first permanent conductor, from 1895 to 1922, and Wilhelm Furtwängler raised the group’s interpretive standards even further over the next three decades. One indicator of the orchestra’s prestige is that its maestros tend to stick around: it’s had only five artistic directors in over a century, including the current head, Claudio Abbado, and three of them have died in the post. Even more impressive are the composers and guest conductors who have led the Berlin: Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Hans Richter, Felix von Weingartner. What’s so special about this ensemble? Its unusually democratic operation–members vote on major decisions–undoubtedly draws strong-willed musicians. And the lengthy tenures of three legendary, innovative maestros–Nikisch, Furtwängler, and Herbert von Karajan, who served from the mid-50s to the end of the 80s–made it attractive to top-notch players. Furtwängler and Karajan led the BPO through most of the symphonies in the repertoire, from Mozart and Beethoven to Mahler, and though some of their readings were initially deemed eccentric, most have been enshrined as definitive. This trio of conductors also helped fashion the disciplined, nuanced, and gorgeous Berlin sound: the orchestra’s lush string section is one of the top three, and its clean, supple winds and brasses are absolutely unsurpassed. The sole piece on the program here is Mahler’s sprawling third symphony, whose last movements are settings of excerpts from Nietzsche and Des Knaben Wunderhorn for contralto, women’s choir, and children’s choir; the Berlin routinely surprises its audiences with fresh and insightful readings of even the most threadbare Mahlers, so its interpretation of this relatively unfamiliar work should be a real revelation. Monday, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cordula Groth.