Vienna Orchestra Still Reluctant To Hire Women

December 31, 2006 4:04am CST
January 1 will again see millions of viewers in over 60 countries sit glued to TV screens for the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra's annual New Year's Concert of popular waltz tunes. But one thing they will not see, no matter how closely they look at one of the world's leading orchestras, is women. In 1997 the male-only orchestra, faced with international protests, grumblingly decided to accept women among their ranks. Anna Lelkes, who had played the harp in the orchestra for 26 years, became the first official female "Philharmoniker". Ten years later, there is still only one female orchestra member, again a harpist. This exceptionally low number gives again rise to claims of sexism among the musicians. In the past, orchestra members strongly defended the exclusion of women. In 1996, Dieter Flury, flautist and business director, told a German radio station that the music made in Vienna had a lot to do with the soul, which could not be separated from its central European roots, or gender. He, and other members, said that the Philharmonics were a group of white male musicians, performing exclusively the music of white male composers, for a white audience. But this "racist and sexist irritation" had to be accepted for the sake of quality - "therefore, I am convinced that it is worthwhile to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produce by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards." Many of those fiercely opposed to women disturbing the orchestra's male unity are still active Philharmonics. New musicians have to pass several rounds of trial performances, first behind a screen and then in full view of a jury before being offered a position. Then up to three trial years, where the musician plays for the Vienna State Opera orchestra are the rule. The State Opera orchestra consists of members of the Philharmonics. After the trial years orchestra members vote whether the candidate can apply for membership with the Philharmonics. The Philharmonics are a private association, although they receive around 2.2 million euro state subsidies. Since 1997, only seven women passed the trials, compared to more than 30 men. Only four of the women are still with the orchestra, waiting for a position. Criticism arose from Vienna's Green Party earlier this month, after it became public that Iva Nikolova, a violinist had been fired after her first trial year in less than clear-cut circumstances. Nikolova told an Austrian news magazine that she was being mobbed. Retro-active changes to the application rules also prevented her from reapplying for her position. One of the reasons given for her dismissal was that she "played too loud" and was too old to adapt. The orchestra is eager to play down any accusations of discrimination. Michael Bladerer, orchestra spokesman told Austrian media that Nikolova's rejection happened in a transparent manner: "30 to 35 per cent of the applicants are female. It is not malice on our part if none of them makes it." Clemens Hellsberg, head of the orchestra, stressed that the discriminatory days are over, but as people were hired purely for "artistic reasons", it may take a very long time until the share of women would reach a percentage similar to other orchestras. "Any quotas are against the essence of art," he said. Compared with other orchestras, the ratio of one female member out of 116 musicians (0.86 per cent) raises questions about the policies of the Vienna orchestra. International orchestras usually employ between 25 and 30 per cent female musicians, mainly strings and woods, less among the brass family. The Zurich Opera House Orchestra employs 40 per cent women, the London Symphony Orchestra around one quarter, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra 32 per cent, Berlin's Philharmonic orchestra 12 per cent and even the Teheran Symphony Orchestra 30 per cent.
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