A vote that might have ended the Vienna Philharmonic’s 155-year all-male tradition was put off Tuesday in Vienna amid reportedly heated debate among the orchestra’s members about whether the time had come to admit women.
The postponement adds to recent criticism from various quarters of the Austrian government, including a Parliament committee, as well as arts officials and American women’s groups planning protests to coincide with the orchestra’s upcoming U.S. tour.
The Washington-based International Alliance for Women in Music, which is organizing demonstrations with the National Organization for Women, said Tuesday it is “dismayed” by the lack of action.
“The VPO’s continued refusal to allow qualified women as members in the orchestra openly demonstrates to the world their utter contempt and blatant disregard for basic principles of equality,” said Catherine Pickar, an alliance board member.
The orchestra also excludes musicians of racial and ethnic minorities, but there was no indication that Tuesday’s debate concerned anything other than the issue of gender bias.
The Vienna Philharmonic--widely regarded as one of the world’s best orchestras, commanding the highest fees--is to play two concerts (March 4-5) at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and three (March 7-9) at Carnegie Hall in New York.
The philharmonic had no comment Tuesday except to emphasize that the meeting and the vote were officially on the agenda of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, not the philharmonic.
The membership of the 120-person State Opera Orchestra, however, is virtually identical to that of the 148-man philharmonic, which operates as a private society. The only difference in personnel between the two institutions is that two female harpists are members of the opera orchestra and that the philharmonic includes 30 musicians no longer in the opera orchestra.
A vote among members of the State Opera Orchestra, all of whom are civil servants, would directly affect the philharmonic because the philharmonic’s charter requires that its members be hired exclusively from the State Opera Orchestra.
“I think if there had been any possibility of getting a ‘yes’ vote today, they would have done it,” William Osborne, an American composer and author who is writing a social history of the Vienna Philharmonic, said Tuesday from his home near Stuttgart, Germany. “This would indicate great resistance on the part of the musicians in the orchestra” to permit women membership.
The State Opera Orchestra did not set a date to take up the vote again. But an official in the Austrian Ministry of Culture who asked not to be identified said that Gottfried Martin, who headed Tuesday’s meeting, has reserved the same meeting room for the orchestra Feb. 27. She said it was her understanding that the orchestra would continue its debate on the admission of women at that time.
The Vienna Philharmonic is scheduled to leave for Paris and London on Feb. 27, Osborne noted, on the tour that brings it to the United States next month. The Costa Mesa performances are being sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. Carnegie Hall is sponsoring the second leg of the U.S. tour.
When the orchestra plays in New York, the Alliance for Women will sponsor three counterconcerts called “Celebrating Women,” featuring works by women composers, at CAMI Hall across from Carnegie.
The Vienna Philharmonic has long justified its exclusion of women and racial minorities on aesthetic grounds, with some of its members claiming the orchestra’s unique sound is the result of “soul” that can come only from the cultural roots and male bonding of central European men.
The first flutist of the Vienna Philharmonic, Dieter Flury, said in an interview last year on German radio WDR that it was “naturally irritating that we are a group of white-skinned male musicians who exclusively perform the music of white-skinned male composers. . . . [But] I am convinced it is worth accepting this racist and sexist irritation” to keep up musical standards.
That argument has come under attack, not just by feminist and human-rights activists but by top musicians.
Georg Solti, one of the greatest living conductors and one who has often conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, in December told Der Spiegel, Germany’s major weekly news magazine, that including women in the orchestra “would be a great win [sonically]. The strings, for example, would have an even mellower effect.”
Flury has since clarified his view. Last week, the flutist told Der Standard, an Austrian newspaper, that he only meant that “the sexist irritation” of excluding women had been acceptable from a historical standpoint. “As to the future,” he said, “I am convinced that the concern about equal treatment is of first importance, which will influence my vote.” He then said he would vote to accept women.