For reasons people don't often have the courage to contemplate, passionate love for music also comes with an inexorable need to prioritize. What's the best? Who's the best? You saw it in the Stephen Frears movie High Fidelity. It's enshrined in Tom Moon's new book 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die. And it's spread all over the December issue of Gramophone magazine, which lists the world's top 20 orchestras.

Philadelphia's isn't among them.

The story gets worse: Philadelphia rates a paragraph in a sidebar headed "Past Glories," along with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which ceased to be in the 1950s.

The list leads off with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics; it ends with the Czech Philharmonic. The top U.S. group is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at No. 5.

Critics have registered consternation, but not on Philadelphia's behalf. "The whole thing is ridiculous," wrote British critic Jessica Duchen on her blog - but mainly because the London Philharmonic and Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra were omitted. The Times of London's Richard Morrison asked why the Lucerne Festival Orchestra wasn't there. In that newspaper's reader comments, one posting from "Janet, Philadelphia" said "Philadelphia isn't that great, so no big surprise there, but I am surprised that Pittsburgh didn't make the cut."

"Philadelphia did make the top 30 (we only printed 20), but clearly at the moment they are not for some reason catching the critics' imagination," said Gramophone editor James Inverne in an e-mail.

Philadelphia Orchestra president James Undercoffler said reaction among the players is "surprise more than anything, and wonderment as to how this happened."

"I join them in that reaction. These things are very subjective and all the people I've talked to in the field are having the same reaction that I'm having. We're working on a European festivals tour for 2011 More elusive is the matter of what the orchestra did to deserve this. The Philadelphia Orchestra is obviously world class. My ears tell me that, in recent seasons, guest conductor Simon Rattle perhaps gets more out of the Philadelphians than his own Berlin Philharmonic (which ranked No. 2).

Also, if the Philadelphia Orchestra has been in partial eclipse (a debatable point), it must be said that world-class orchestras don't stay that way long, thanks to a a quickly re-awakened muscle memory - note the Boston Symphon's speedy renaissance under James Levine. But responsibility must be taken for the bad will the orchestra generated amid the ousting of Christoph Eschenbach, and its lingering effects.

First, though, one must consider how such lists, and the perceptions that feed them, come about. In this case, a panel of 11 critics from Vienna to Los Angeles to China converged by e-mail.

"They were asked to consider not only orchestras' technical qualities but also their interpretive prowess, and other considerations such as the way in which they interact in their communities. Several of the judges also commented on orchestras that kept their sound 'character,' " said Inverne.

Of course, even critics evaluating their local orchestras can't claim to have heard every concert of any given season, so non-local evaluation would have to be based on a range of live-on-tour and recorded encounters, probably over several years. Though out-of-town ears may be fresher than those of local critics, opinions are inevitably anecdotal.

Also, they have a lag time: Last year's artistic reality isn't this year's, which perhaps is why the recently-begun Vladimir Jurowski tenure with the London Philharmonic Orchestra wasn't acknowledged - and why less-favorable impressions hang around longer than radioactive isotopes.

In the Philadelphia Orchestra's last West Coast visit, Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed - one of Gramophone's panelists (the New Yorker's Alex Ross was the other American) - vividly described a sub-standard performance by players visibly unengaged by then-music director Eschenbach. Eschenbach has defenders in high places, and the perception that the orchestra declined to play well for him in significant venues looks bad, if not downright unprofessional.

Add more anecdotal encounters, and the snowball starts rolling. The Evening Standard's Norman Lebrecht may be the nut uncle of British critics, but people read him, and what he wrote several years ago on a visit to Philadelphia would give plenty justification to putting the orchestra in the "past glories" column. Here's the maddening part: He was in town to promote his novel and just happened to hear the orchestra on a night that (by my estimation, since I was there) was the single most lackluster concert of the Eschenbach era. As an Eschenbach admirer, I can usually tell what he's after even if it's not all there. But not that night. You can just imagine what a visitor like Lebrecht perceived.

Who knows what sort of memory bank is coming into play? For example, much as I often enjoy the New York Philharmonic (No. 12), I wouldn't put it at the top of a list because I'm still scarred by the awful Zubin Mehta years, and fear that Kurt Masur's tenure was only a temporary respite and that Lorin Maazel has something to hide by playing everything so relentlessly loud.

Then there's the wild card of subjectivity. My list, for one, would put the Bavarian Radio Symphony above Amsterdam: It has a greater depth of culture. I would include the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, led by Dallas' Jaap van Zweden, based on a recent roof-raising concert version of Verdi's Otello I heard in Amsterdam. I'm not sure how the San Francisco Symphony would rank: Both Michael Tilson Thomas and past music director Herbert Blomstedt accomplish so much more with other orchestras.

Orchestras tend to be defined by their leadership. Both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have been in transition, which is where the lag-time factor comes in: Unless you live here, you wouldn't know that Philadelphia has had an excellent autumn season, that Dutoit is inspired in ways not apparent since his best Montreal years, that his programming goes well beyond his usual party pieces, and that there's been an unusually congenial succession of guest conductors.

Whatever anybody says, the stuff is still there.