Vienna Philharmonic Still Under Fire


Women still need not apply. Ditto for people of color.

Twelve months after reluctantly ending its 155-year ban against female musicians because of pressure from Austrian and American feminists, the renowned Vienna Philharmonic continues to thumb its nose at players who are not white males, its critics contend.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 5, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 5, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 56 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Music--A story in Friday’s Calendar on the admission of women into the Vienna Philharmonic erroneously stated that the St. Louis Symphony had recently settled or was currently involved in a gender-related lawsuit. No such lawsuit was filed.

The National Organization for Women says the orchestra remains dedicated to “a racist and misogynist philosophy,” notwithstanding the admission of harpist Anna Lelkes one year ago today as the first (and only) woman with full membership in the organization.

NOW and the International Alliance for Women in Music, which mounted demonstrations against the orchestra last winter in Orange County and New York City on its 1997 U.S. tour, have called for renewed protests tonight at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall, where the globe-trotting Viennese musicians give the first of three concerts this weekend.


Meanwhile, Sonja Ablinger, a member of the Austrian parliament, said Wednesday from Vienna that the orchestra has resorted to sly maneuvers and sham procedures in hiring practices covertly designed to discourage women from applying.

“These men are making difficulties,” the 31-year-old Social Democrat said. “They do everything to keep women out. They change the rules. They create new obstacles. I would say half of the orchestra is very anti-women--still.”

The evidence, she and others assert, is the philharmonic’s most recent attempt to fill four positions--solo viola, solo cello, second violin and tuba--for which 35 women requested auditions. Fourteen were invited to try out last December; five showed up and were deemed unsuitable.

Twenty-one were denied auditions--including one violist, Gertrude Rossbacher, who was born and trained in Vienna and hired in 1987 for the Berlin Philharmonic by its legendary conductor, Herbert von Karajan.

The following year, at 27, Rossbacher became the second woman ever granted full membership in that orchestra. When she applied last April to the Vienna Philharmonic, officials told her she was too old; she was 35.

Philharmonic spokesman Wolfgang Schuster did not return phone calls. Orchestra Chairman Clemens Hellsberg, elected last May as a progressive who favors change, told the Austrian newspaper Der Kurier earlier this week: “I’m not in the mood to talk about the auditions for women anymore.”

Since 1981 the Vienna Philharmonic has said that it might eventually accept female players but that “change takes time.” In spite of Lelkes’ appointment (at age 57), the orchestra’s pace seems no faster now: Three of the most recent open positions went to men; the fourth remains unfilled.

“When they took Ms. Lelkes everybody was so enthusiastic!” said Elena Ostleitner, a leading musicologist at Vienna’s Academy of Music. “There was absolutely no reason to be so happy and so proud. It was a tiny little success. There haven’t been any since.”

The Vienna Philharmonic, with 148 men and one female member, has one of the music world’s worst records for gender bias. Among the major Central European orchestras within a 300-mile radius of Vienna, women constitute less than 7% at each.

“The fact that the Vienna Philharmonic doesn’t take women is actually good for us because we get them,” says Gabriela Mossyrch, chairwoman of Vienna’s Volksoper, a major exception to the rule with 25 women and 70 men.

U.S. orchestras generally do better than their European counterparts--here women hold about 36% of the seats--"because of more rigorous equal-opportunity measures,” Harvard University researcher Erin Lehman said. Even so, five major orchestras--in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston--have current or recently settled gender-related lawsuits.

Harvard economist Claudia Goldin and Princeton University’s Cecilia Rouse have found that blind auditions--a procedure the Vienna Philharmonic refuses to use in final rounds--increase the chances for women. When a screen is used to keep candidates hidden from view, their success in initial auditions at U.S. orchestras improves by 50%, and in the final rounds by 300%.

The Vienna Philharmonic’s gender bias is compounded by a historical racist legacy that chairman Hellsberg himself has acknowledged. Some observers, such as Heinz Roegel, a Viennese music journalist for the Salzburger Nachrichten, cites Hellsberg’s openness on the subject as a positive sign.

In “Democracy of Kings,” a book Hellsberg wrote to celebrate the orchestra’s 150th anniversary in 1992, he pointed out that well before 1938, 47% of its then-members joined the Nazi party when it was illegal to do so in Austria.

Six players, Hellsberg noted, were Jewish and died in concentration camps; another 11 were able to escape through timely immigration; and nine were found to be of “mixed race” or “contaminated by kinship” and were reduced in status.

After Austria was annexed by Germany, the orchestra performed at the Nazi Party Days in Nuremberg in 1938; Hitler was so taken by the performance that he promised the orchestra his personal protection and asked it to be a yearly fixture at the Nuremberg rallies.

“It thus became part of the central paradigm of National Socialist cultural ritual,” says William Osborne, an American composer who lives in Germany and has written numerous scholarly articles on the history of the orchestra.

Given that legacy and the fact that the orchestra is regarded today as one of the pinnacles of Western musical culture, Osborne argued in a recent phone interview that the philharmonic is under a special obligation to redress the past and open its ranks to the best musicians, regardless of race or gender.

“The Vienna Philharmonic possesses immense power,” he said. “It is the world’s best-selling orchestra. Its annual New Year’s concerts are seen by 1.2 million people worldwide.”

He points out that Hellsberg has said that “there is already too much weariness with democracy in Austria” and that he does not want to force the issue of integration.

That is not merely a rhetorical phrase, Osborne notes. “In the last national elections, the Neo-Nazi Freedom Party got 23% of the vote. ‘Weariness with democracy’ is code for the right wing’s authoritarian, racist credo.

“Little Austria--which for better or worse is never going to give up certain touches of its empire mentality--can’t make too many cannons,” Osborne said.

“But it certainly can field several orchestras that cut a wide swath,” he added. “The philharmonic ought to use its influence wisely.”

Nina Benkotich, an assistant in The Times Vienna bureau, contributed to this report.