The world-renowned Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra will reconsider its long-standing refusal to admit women in the face of mounting political pressure in Austria and planned protests at concerts here and in New York.
Members of the 155-year-old orchestra will meet this month, three weeks before it plays at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on the first leg of a U.S. tour, to take up “the women question,” an orchestra employee said Friday from Vienna.
American activists planning the protest campaign say that a vote by the orchestra to allow women into its ranks would not defuse demonstrations.
The orchestra, which is widely regarded as one of the world’s best and which commands the highest fees, is made up of 148 musicians: all men. It also excludes members of ethnic or racial minorities.
“Public opinion is coming in from all over the world, especially from America,” Andreas Mailath, the Austrian government’s director general for the arts, said Friday in Vienna. “There also have been inquiries and demands in our parliament about the exclusion of women.
“As I understand from our talks with the Philharmonic,” Mailath said, “there will be a general assembly of its members on Feb. 18. What we have heard from two of its main people, there will be a proposal to have women admitted.”
Orchestra president Werner Resel has declined to comment until after that meeting.
Monique Buzzarte, a board member of the International Alliance for Women in Music, which is mounting protests with the National Organization for Women, said in New York that “nothing in the orchestra’s charter says it cannot hire women or minorities. It’s just tradition.”
The orchestra is a private, self-governing society. However, all its members are also civil servants in the Vienna State Opera orchestra, from which the Philharmonic members must be chosen. Consequently, the Austrian government maintains, it cannot order the Philharmonic to accept women or ethnic minorities.
“I think there is a chance for them to overturn tradition,” Mailath said. “I have heard that there are many in the orchestra who think these protests and the whole issue might become a real problem for them in public performances.
“And now that we have solved certain legal questions about maternity leave and some other protections concerning night work for women, there cannot possibly be any legal excuse for them to say, ‘Well, this is impossible.’
“Quite honestly,” Mailath added, “this is not a problem where they should even think twice about it.”
Nora Graham, who is coordinating the West Coast protest for the Alliance for Women from her home in Los Angeles, said Friday: “They’ve said things like this many times before and then taken no action. They’ve always slimed their way out of it. They’ll say anything to appease us.”
Added Buzzarte: “However they vote, it will not affect the protests in New York or Orange County. We’re out to educate the public. We’re going to let the public know the facts, and the public can then choose to support the orchestra or not.”
The Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which is bringing the orchestra to the Performing Arts Center for concerts on March 4 and 5, said ticket sales will not be affected by protests.
“We’re sold out,” said Dean Corey, the society’s executive director. Tickets for concerts in New York on March 7-9 also are gone, he said.
Women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem released a statement Friday supporting the protest. She suggested the orchestra change its name to “the Vienna Men’s Philharmonic” to explain “why women have been systematically excluded.”
Pauline Oliveros, a composer on the advisory board of Alliance for Women who taught for a decade at UC San Diego, said that defenders of the orchestra have tried to make the case that “its unique sound” depends on “emotional unity” and “male bonding.”
“That is just a cover,” Oliveros said. “I don’t subscribe to the theory of gender-based music. . . . It’s a form of racism, a remnant of it. And it’s very hard to penetrate. Women have been actively discouraged from bonding with men in music for thousands of years. Today we call it the glass ceiling.”
Adding its voice to the protest, the New York chapter of the American Federation of Musicians issued a statement Friday appealing to the orchestra “to end the [exclusionary] policy.”
The Austrian government withheld its 1996 subsidy of the Vienna Philharmonic because of the orchestra’s refusal to hire women. The subsidy came to about $200,000.
“This is almost nothing,” the Ministry of Culture’s Mailath said, noting that the subsidy is equal to perhaps one night’s fee on the current tour. “So freezing our subsidy does not have much of an effect. It is purely symbolic.”
In another move with symbolic overtones, Viktor Klima, who became Austrian chancellor in January, has shuffled the Cabinet, letting the culture minister go and assuming those duties himself.
“It does not have anything to do with the question of the orchestra,” Mailath said, “but it is intended to send a message to the arts community here that the chancellor is taking a serious interest in the arts.”
He emphasized that the government has taken the position that “if a woman applies to the State Opera orchestra,” which is administered by the Ministry of Culture, “she will get an audition. And if she qualifies, she will become a member of that orchestra.”
Because members of the Philharmonic must be chosen from the State Opera orchestra, it would be “a matter of time before the Philharmonic is forced to choose women for its ranks,” Mailath said. “There is no reason whatsoever not to have women. The director of the State Opera orchestra has made it quite clear that it is not only no problem for him, but he wishes to have more women.”
Currently, the State Opera includes two women, both harpists, among about 150 players. One of those harpists has played regularly in the Vienna Philharmonic for 26 years but has been denied permanent membership. In fact, it was only last year that she was listed among the players in the printed programs.
“Usually, you have to be a member [of the State Opera orchestra] for three years before you get an audition for the Philharmonic,” Mailath said. “Of course, the government would like to see it happen sooner than that.
“But we cannot tell the Philharmonic what to do,” he added.
* WOMEN’S PHILHARMONIC: Bay Area orchestra promotes works by women. A22