The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is the Vienna Philharmonic sexist? Why does it have so few women players and why doesn’t it book a woman guest conductor for the New Year’s Day gala concert? | January 4, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday I reviewed and commented on two classical music concerts that took place in New York City on New Year’s Eve. Both seemed largely, even overwhelmingly, successful, according to my own views and to the reviews I directed you to.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, however, things did not go as smoothly – at least not as far as The Ear is concerned.

True, the largely Strauss family concert of waltzes and polkas from the legendary and beautiful Golden Hall (below) in Vienna went largely as it usually has over almost 30 years. As always, it seemed sold-out. And as always, the audience was enthusiastic, clapping merrily along with The Radetsky March finale.

But I also noticed some sharp contrasts with the New York Philharmonic, long-standing contrasts that I did not like.

It is simply this:

Why are there so few women playing in the Vienna Philharmonic (below), especially when compared to the New York Philharmonic? The Vienna Philharmonic is one of the world’s greatest orchestras and would seem to be a draw for top women instrumentalists from around the world.

Is the orchestra’s administration just outright sexist?

Are the audiences and the Viennese public in general that sexist or narrow-minded?

Do women players avoid the orchestra because they feel unwanted or demeaned in the mostly male and possibly hostile or misogynist ensemble, no matter how prestigious it is. I remember the unfortunate trouble that pioneering clarinetist  Sabine Meyer faced with the Berlin Philharmonic when she was hired sand then drummed out of it many years ago.

There is no getting around it, Vienna is a very conservative city and always has been, even though it would like to deny or forget its Nazi past. But you would nonetheless expect more progress over the years, especially given the global spotlight on women’s rights and gender equality in the wake of the Arab Spring.

And how about making history by booking for the widely broadcast  New Year’s Day concert a woman guest conductor – say, the critically acclaimed American protégée of Leonard BernsteinMarin Alsop (below):  

Or the widely travelled and much recorded American conductor JoAnn Falletta (below)?

Or the dynamic Estonia conductor, who has wowed Madison audiences, Anu Tali (below)

And I am sure there are many other fully qualified and capable women conductors I have not named.

If they have already done that, I am unaware of it,. But doing that would send a good signal to young and older women alike, and might even help the orchestra recruit more female musicians. After all, the New Year’s Day concert is billed as the world’s biggest live concert and with an audience of more than one billion listeners in 72 countries.

Would that really be so radical a step?

The Ear says it is time — in fact, long overdue time — for more women players in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and  for a woman conductor to stand on its podium, especially for the always symbolic and hopeful New Year’s Day Concert.

Hey, Vienna! Make some good history! Strike a blow for women’s equality!

In the mean time, readers and listeners, let us know:

And what you think of so few women playing in the Vienna Philharmonic?

What explains it?

Would you like to see a woman conductor preside ever the New Year’s Day concert?

The Ear wants to hear.


9 Comments »

  1. They are getting better. Actually they have been self-managed since their creation (in the 19th century, I suppose). And in the past, they did not permit women at all.
    They began to accept women in the very recent years, so course, the proportion can only slowly change.
    Don’t generalize with all Europe, it is abusive. I think because, on the contrary, it is European law that obliged them to change their rules because it was discriminatory.

    Comment by Marie-Thérèse — January 5, 2012 @ 12:08 am

  2. I was unaware of the problems faced by the female clarinetist you mentioned, Jake, but something similar happened to a trombonist hired by Von Karajan before he knew her gender. That case went through the German courts and she won. Can’t recall her name now but read about it at length at the time. If the Vienna Phil is anti-female, perhaps they learned it from the Berlin Phil?

    Comment by Larry Retzack — January 4, 2012 @ 9:31 pm

  3. I think we should not forget that a good deal of the antipathy to Sabine Meyer was that she was being bonked by von Karajan. However, I do agree with your main premise. The truth is that, of course, the Austrians are sexist. Full stop.

    Comment by leboyfriend — January 4, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

  4. I mentioned the Vienna Philharmonic’s all-male tradition when we were watching the New York Philharmonic, and Elaine had an unusual reaction — she said she’d rather see properly dressed men than the armpits and back fat of the women violinists in the New York Philharmonic who were pumping away in sleeveless, low-cut gowns while the men were in white tie.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — January 4, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

  5. I watched the concert live on TV here in Switzerland and I was also struck by the all-male group (plus one female harpist). I was really surprised to be honest. I think it’s rare these days to have an all-male orchestra, but maybe I’m wrong.

    I wanted to see some statistics about gender and orchestras so I Googled it. My, oh my.

    When I first decided to respond to this blog I was neutral. But now, after doing a tiny bit of research, I feel most turned off by the Vienna Philharmonic. If the attitudes and practices in this article are true, I must say that I’m quite disappointed in the ensemble: http://www.osborne-conant.org/prophets.htm

    Generally humans have made a lot of progress in terms of working together, regardless of the color of our skin and our sex. It is sad to see that in such a prominent classical music organization this progress has simply not happened.

    Comment by K. Lendi — January 4, 2012 @ 6:16 am

    • Dear K.Lendi,
      Thank you for reading and replying with such care and thoughtfulness.
      I especially appreciate the link you included so that I and other readers can check out the research for ourselves and see the facts to so disappointed you.
      (By the way, a woman harpist seems token to me. I don;t think I have ever seen a male harpist anywhere so I am sure some exist. I once asked why that is so on this blog, but nobody responded.)
      I agree completely with you that it is sad that more blending of gender and ethnicity has not taken place with the Vienna Philharmonic. It is such a great, grand and prestigious musical institution.
      For that very reason, it should help set the trend, not wait to follow it.
      It seems far behind the times, especially when compared to symphony orchestras in the New World.
      Best wishes for 2012.
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 4, 2012 @ 10:46 am

      • Try Googling “harpist Australia” for a masculine list including a harp maker. Also there used to be a gentleman who performed regularly with ll the Sydney orchestras in the 80s – I never met him, but the harp case with his name painted on seemed to be always leaning against walls in concert venues.

        Comment by Angela — December 31, 2012 @ 5:49 am

  6. Tradition, conservatism… and this applies generally in
    Europe.
    However, your point is well made and given the nature
    and content of the New Year’s Day concert it would be
    interesting to see how it would be received if a female
    conductor was invited to officiate.
    I very much doubt whether this will happen, though.

    Comment by Ken Dunseith — January 4, 2012 @ 1:51 am

    • Hi Ken,
      Thank you for reading and replying thoughtfully.
      I agree with you about the unfortunate conservatism so prevalent in Europe, even though the Continent has long had the reputation of being socially advanced when it comes to feminism and socially progressive movements in the arts.
      And I share your pessimism about Vienna and ever seeing more female players and especially a female conductor for the high-profile New Year’s Day concert.
      But it would be interesting to see the results if the Vienna philharmonic tried it.
      Maybe they will hear about this post and these comments and together we can all make a difference!
      No that would a New Year’s Concerto to celebrate, no?
      Best wishes for the 2012.
      I look forward to hearing more from you and will keep everyone posted on results from this particular posting.
      Jake

      But maybe enough pressure from women and their allies, from the public, from other arts groups and maybe

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 4, 2012 @ 10:31 am


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