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Pictures at an audition for the Vienna Philharmonic

November 30, 2014 by norman lebrecht

30 comments.


In a pre-New Year’s attempt to deflect criticism of their anti-feminism and racism, the Vienna Philharmonic have issued seven pictures of last week’s audition, accompanied by explanatory texts. It breaches 170 years of secrecy but does not clarify much (see below). Official text in italics.

vienna phil audition

Auditions take place at the Gustav Mahler Hall (usually one of the largest intermission halls at the Wiener Staatsoper), which has remarkably good acoustics.

The jury consists of 25 members of the orchestra: two of four concertmasters, the principals, the VPO chairman and managing director, five musicians of the relevant orchestra section, two staff council members from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, and a representative of the Vienna State Opera’s management.

The candidates draw a number right before the audition and play at random order.

vienna phil audition2
The candidates will be evaluated on a scale of 2 to 20 points. When a certain average is reached, the candidate goes to the next round. At least the final round will be played without the curtain. Frankly speaking, if the best candidate’s level is not adequate, the jury can determine that the audition was unsuccessful – as it was the case this week.

vienna phil audition3

A few guests may experience the auditions behind the jury to see how incredibly difficult auditions are for everyone involved.

(Photos by Jun Keller).

Do not be fooled by this splendid PR excercise. The final selection is without a screen, enabling old prejudices to be asserted. No new members were selected this week. We wonder how many of the candidates were women and non-Europeans.


Comments (30)

  1. Andrew Condon says:

    Was wondering if anyone had spotted this documentary from 2011 which I found on You Tube . As Norman would say its “auf Deutsch” with subtitles I think in Greek but it does give quite an insight into the audition process (after about 1 hour) with shots from the actual auditions, interviews with the candidates, results being announced and post-audition feedback being given.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zyil7cywkvk

  2. Warrior says:

    Also not mentioned is who is invited to audition. Do they invite anyone who wants to audition to play? Or do they only invite who they want to invite?

  3. Andrew Condon says:

    Hate to be a boring pedant, but for those who have not followed the many and various discussions on this and related matters in the past, we are talking here about auditioning for the Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper – they are not auditioning in the first instance for membership of the VPO. Membership of the VPO is by invitation, after 3 or more years service in the Staatsoper orchestra

  4. noah says:

    This is pretty standard audition procedure stuff world wide. Whats the problem? Cleveland for instance is famous for not using a screen the entire time. The MET Opera orchestra in NY uses a screen the entire time.
    Vienna Phil and Opera has held onto some pretty high standards for a long time, there clearly needs to be given an opportunity to women to particpate in the audition process, but ultimately the standard of performance is way more important then any sort of “bean counting”

    re: warrior
    Most European (and many American orchestras) don’t do open “cattle call” auditons. There are pluses and minuses to invite only- you get to spend more time with each canditate while avoiding fatigue on the jury. On the minus side you’ve obviously limited the amount of candiate. The cattle call presents opposite issues. The panel hears more people, but spends why less time with them and can get subject to fatigue.

    1. william osborne says:

      Cleveland Orchestra = 32% women. Vienna Phil = 7%.

      1. Andrew Condon says:

        I hesitate to question Mr Osborne in these matters, but in the interests of accuracy, of the 139 players listed on the VPO site, 11 are women, which by my reckoning is 7.9% (i.e. 8% rather than 7%)

        1. Michael Schaffer says:

          Andrew, you shouldn’t hesitate, Mr Osborne often gets his facts wrong and sometimes willfully distorts them to fit his narrative and agenda, but in this case, he may be more or less correct as I believe the Wiener Staatsopernorchester actually has around 146 permanent positions (not sure if that is the exact number, but something like that) even if they are not all filled at the moment.

  5. Olaugh Turchev says:

    Another “torture” session… Yawn.

  6. Tim says:

    Regardless of the orchestra, I don’t see why these groups just take down the curtain for good and split the gender 50/50, with each ‘side’ being an equal 20% group of white, black, Asian, Latino, and middle-eastern. They can have democratic votes on tempo and dynamics, stop mid-performance to talk about how that particular piece affects them, and end every concert by holding hands while singing “kumbaya” (omitting the word “Lord” of course, because that would be stifling).

  7. JayPee says:

    While we’re at it, maybe Mr. Lebrecht could tell us how many African-Americans can be found, say, in the ten main American orchestras or in the London orchestras…
    Must be because they’re all racists, right?!?

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      Actually, quite a few if you care to look beyond your tiny Viennese prejudices. And in some US orchestras, as we have reported, women are represented in almost the same proportion that they are in the human race.

      1. Michael Schaffer says:

        I don’t quite see what the question as such has to do with “tiny Viennese prejudices”…Most of the major US orchestras I have seen in concert (and I have seen them all multiple times) have just 1 or 2 musicians of African-American background (about 12% of the overall population).

        What about British orchestras? How many musicians of Indian or African background do they have, and what percentages of the British population do these make up?

      2. Max Grimm says:

        Come now, Norman. To claim that American orchestras have “quite a few” African American players is like claiming that the Vienna Philharmonic has quite a few women in its ranks.
        Roughly 4 percent of American orchestral musicians are African American and the 10 biggest US orchestras only have 18 African American members in their ranks.

        1. william osborne says:

          One difference is that the VPO has a long tradition of excluding racial minorities, especially Asians, while US orchestras do not. The lack of African-Americans, which is a serious problem, is due to a lack of African-American candidates and not discrimination in hiring practices.

          1. Max Grimm says:

            I know William. I merely wondered how anyone could think that American orchestras had anything but very few African American players.

        2. norman lebrecht says:

          They have, however, a huge complement of Asian players.

  8. Michael Schaffer says:

    “Do not be fooled by this splendid PR excercise. The final selection is without a screen, enabling old prejudices to be asserted.”

    Norman, I don’t think this is a PR exercise (or “excercise”, as you wrote). You are the only music journalist who constantly obsesses about whatever they are doing over there in Vienna – but they really don’t care what you think about them. Sorry you had to hear it from me…

    Also, this may be something you don’t really understand because you have never played in a good orchestra, but having the audition, or at least the final round, without a screen, prejudices or not, makes a lot of sense. Playing in an orchestra is not just about being able to play an instrument well technically, about playing all the right notes at the right time. Once it has been established that the candidates have a certain level of technical competence on their instrument – that can be done with or without a screen -, it is important that the jury can actually see the candidates, see how they move when they play, how freely they move, or if they are very cramped when they play or not.
    Having the technical abilities and being able to deliver a few pieces that have been practiced over and over, that is one thing, being able to play freely and flexibly is quite another, and that is extremely important in a high level orchestra, especially in an opera orchestra where they sit in the pit for hours and have to be able to react very flexibly to whatever happens during the performance.

  9. John Borstlap says:

    It’s amazing to see how difficult it seems to be for a LOCAL orchestra to remain local and cultivate their own, subjective wishes, however legitimate. The VPO has been set-up as a private club and if it wants to remain that way, they should be allowed to have the freedom such position infers. The Philharmoniker do not represent ‘political correct society’ nor need to reflect other people’s opinions. If they have the feeling that fat black lesbian violinists, fragile old Chinese trombone players and long-haired hippy percussionists do not quite produce the image of an old Viennese local classical orchestra, they should be free to take such feelings into account at auditions, however excellent the auditioners play.

    1. william osborne says:

      It is against both Austrian and EU law for publicly funded institutions to discriminate on the basis of race and gender.

  10. Michael Endres says:

    Oh dear….this will not go down well.
    My condolences.
    The debate is not new, it feels more and more like of a bunch of canards gnarling at each other …

    I personally feel the near absence of women in the VPO is indeed odd, as there are plenty of Viennese or Austrian female musicians who grew up with that particular tradition and for sure are able to represent that special Viennese style , which is the soul of this
    orchestra.

    And this is the last time I have commented on the VPO. That’s a promise.
    Life is too short .

    1. Michael Endres says:

      last comment was an answer @ John Borstlap

  11. william osborne says:

    It was ten years after agreeing to admit women that the VPO hired its first non-harpist women.

    Seventeen years after agreeing to admit women, there are 11 women in the Staatsoper orchestra even though over half the orchestra has been replaced since then. This ratio of new hires for women is far below international standards.

  12. william osborne says:

    If they were not concerned about Norman’s commentary, and those of many other journalists around the world, they would have posted these photos and comments. Readers should remember that “Michael Schaefer” is a pseudonym, even though he has claimed to be a real person. It says something about his integrity, and why, for the most part, it is pointless to engage him in dialog. He uses it merely as an occasion to express ethnic resentments and abuse people. Forgive me if I ignore his further comments, which if the past is any indication, will as usual be pointlessly abusive.

    1. M2N2K says:

      There are no comments in this thread that are signed “Michael Schaefer”.

      1. Michael Schaffer says:

        I do rather like the expression “ethnic resentments” though, that’s a pretty inventive way to basically just smear someone as a racist. Osborne never hesitates to sink to that level if it serves his agenda, which is mostly to abuse the actually very important subjects of gender equality and treatment of minorities as his personal soapboxes. Living in Germany, he has had the experience that merely mentioning these subjects more or less guarantees him instant attention, and that is what he is after. He has even named his so-called “activism” as the real reason behind his failed career as a composer, which is nonsense, of course.
        But you have to give him that, he can be pretty inventive and entertaining in his choice of smear paroles, even if the “forgive me if I won’t further respond” mantra has become pretty old by now.

  13. Michael Schaffer says:

    Noah, there is no rule of thumb here and I don’t know exactly how they handle that in Vienna, but in Berlin, the Philharmoniker are actually quite open to inviting (almost) anyone. The candidate has to have some kind of background which suggests he might be worth listening to, so one can not just “walk in from the street”, but they don’t really care if the candidates already have their diploma or if they still are students, if they won any competitions etc. The audition may only last a minute, but they do give many a chance to be heard – and seen, which, as I pointed out in another post, is actually quite important.

    1. noah says:

      I’m aware of that, I guess the main point of that part of my post was to say that there are pluses and minuses to each situation in regard to inviting everybody or taking steps to limit the candidate pool (either thru tapes, resume screening, or some combination of both).

      1. M2N2K says:

        My orchestra does limit the number of invitees by reading all applicants’ resumes with names removed and separating the few that look clearly unqualified. However, those musicians who are “not invited” are still allowed to audition and the jury panel members seating behind the screen are never told whether the candidate they are listening to is “invited” or not. It seems like a fair system and it has been working reasonably well so far. Correct me if I am wrong, but it is my understanding that most other major American orchestras have similar policies.

        1. noah says:

          I don’t think its fair to say that is the policy of “most American” orchestras.
          Some of the American orchestras (and they tend to be some of the better mid-size orchestras that can’t afford days of auditions) would definitely screen resumes and reject a pretty good amount of candidates. Those “rejected” candidates might be able to have teacher write on their behalf for an invite or might be invited to send a tape, but not always.
          How is the procedure you described different then a “cattle call” style of audtions? (which btw as I’ve already said I don’t come down in favor for one or the other, I just recognize there are positive and negative aspects to both situations). At the end of the day if its working financially and time wise for your orchestra thats great. How recent was your audition for the same orchestra? Was it conducted in similar circumstances, how was the audition experience for you?

          1. M2N2K says:

            Regarding your first sentence: that is precisely why my previous comment said “most MAJOR American orchestras”, meaning approximately two dozen top ones which does not include so-called “mid-size” ensembles. The audition when I was first hired by my current orchestra was long time ago and many details of it were different, but the principles were essentially the same as in my description of more recent practice. For the person who gets the job by winning the audition, the experience itself is usually positive, as are the memories of it, and my case is not an exception to that general rule.


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