Slipped Disc editorial: Discrimination is wrong, right?

We have received more than the average torrent of cynical abuse this year in response to our articles and observations on the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concert.

Unlike these tunnel-visioned respondents, Slipped Disc tries to see both sides of most stories. We report verbatim the claims by Vienna Philharmonic directors that they are trying to practice equal opportunity employment and we record with regret their repeated failure to do so.

We have no axe to grind against this excellent orchestra. We have friendly contacts with several of its members.

However, what is wrong remains wrong, no matter how beautiful it sounds. An orchestra that selects just five or six women players for its greatest showcase is making a statement about its identity.

If discrimination against women and minorities is an offence in the sight of God and law, then the VPO is a flagrant, persistent offender. It must change its ways or face the condemnation and disgust of civilised humanity.

If, on the other hand, you happen to think discrimination is right and reasonable and ought to be ignored, please leave this site. You are, in the classic Viennese phrase, nicht erwünscht.

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  • Your obsession with the VPO has become –as part of constant German/Austria bashing — a regrettable regular feature of this once excellent blog.
    Interesting that even open discussion about the VPO is now “Unerwuenscht “,
    disagreeing with you in this matter no longer tolerated.
    Good luck with such practice.

  • Anyone can look at any other orchestra in the world, including those in the same class as the VPO and anyone can see, if they want, an entirely different standard of selection. The gap between everyone else and the VPO is ugly by any measure and it continues as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist.

    • So how do you explain the Berlin Phil’s 19 female players? 19 compared to 12… certainly not “an entirely different standard of selection”, as you put it.

      But perhaps you can’t play the Nazi card for free with the Germans?

      • It is indeed interesting that the Berlin and Vienna Phil’s have the lowest and 3rd lowest ratios for women personnel in the world. I suspect Berlin will soon fall from 3rd to 2nd, since the Czech Phil is hiring women at a much faster rate. Vienna and Berlin will then occupy the two lowest positions, which will not present the most positive image of Germanic culture to the world.

        The Berlin and Vienna Phil’s share common aspects of history and culture that very likely shaped their employment practices. Since you raise the matter, Fritz Trümpi has recently published a book comparing the extensive use made of the two orchestras by the National Socialists: “Politisierte Orchester. Die Wiener Philharmoniker und das Berliner Philharmonische Orchester im Nationalsozialismus.” Böhlau, Wien-Köln-Weimar 2011. This book was awarded the Irma-Rosenberg-Hauptpreis of the City of Vienna in November 2012.

        Trümpi co-authored a second book recently released about the VPO’s abysmal treatment of its Jewish exiles after the war combined with its active embrace of unrepentant Nazis. See: Bernadette Mayrhofer / Fritz Trümpi. Orchestrierte Vertreibung. Unerwünschte Wiener Philharmoniker – Verfolgung, Ermordung und Exil. Mandelbaum Verlag [Oktober 2014].

        These books have been well received by historians, and also by the Jewish community in Vienna. Both orchestras are now relatively open about their Nazi histories, so there is no reason for fans of these orchestra to object to important studies such as these. In fact, a clear airing of these themes helps both orchestras move forward to a better future.

        I would like to add that the highly hostile comments made in these pages about Norman’s coverage of these topics borders on anti-Antisemitism — as if a Jewish classical music writer weren’t to be concerned about these issues. His remarks concerning the VPO support the younger generation that is creating important changes in the ensemble. They are accurate, measured, and a service to the classical music world.

        • Antisemitic? How about that! Usually the last recourse when one is out of argument:
          What’s the causality link between the Nazi past of the VPO and their hiring practices in 2015? Unless you can prove that repeatedly inferior male musicians were taken over superior female musicians, you have nothing but a grudge.
          Again I sympathize with your wife’s ordeal but you simply wish to replace one injustice by another on a larger scale.

          • The causal link is obvious for those not in denial. Due to the orchestra’s poor de-Nazification, which is well documented, a discriminatory atmosphere was allowed to continue in the orchestra after the war which casts its shadow to this day, even if things are improving. After the orchestra began to face strong scrutiny due to its discrimination, the musicians were forbidden to speak to the media — a policy that is strongly enforced. This doesn’t mean the discrimination vanished, but that the musicians are not allowed to publicly speak about it. I document the attitudes that continued up to recent years in this article which was published by the M.I.T. Press:


            These attitudes, of course, have not suddenly vanished, even if the orchestra is slowly leaving them behind. Last summer I was in Sweden where one of my works was performed in the Aurora Music Festival. My wife and I were part of a panel discussion about women in music along with the violinist Sarah Chang. The journalist who was the moderator had recently written an article about the VPO being given the Birgit Nielson Prize. A couple members of the Philharmonic were thus allowed to speak to her. One of them was one of the few women in the orchestra. She reiterated the belief that Asians make music differently and would harm the VPO’s style if allowed to be members. Unfortunately, the journalist was not allowed to include this in the article because it was a puff piece about the Birgit Nielson Prize.

          • Poor argument Mr. Osborne. Once again you fail to establish that lesser male musicians have been hired over better female musicians on a repeated basis.

          • Actually, it is your argument that is poor and specious. The auditions are closed to the public, highly subjective, and the members of the rochestra are under a strictly enforced gag order designed to specifically hide their views. You thus speciously demand a type of proof exactly because you know it is unavailable while ignoring that the VPO has a very recent history of openly stated discrimination and a ratio of women that sets it apart from the entire music world except for two closely related orchestras with similar traditions of sexism, the Berlin and Czech Phils. Now go back to pretending you don’t see anything.

          • Mr. Osborne, so you acknowledge you know nothing about what’s supposedly taking place during auditions and selection but that the result is enough proof to condemn. But your case is airtight… right?

          • Judging by prominent examples like Yuja Wang, Yundi Li or Lang Lang, one could reasonably come to the conclusion, that many Asians in fact DO have a different style. I fail to see what would be so outrageous to describe this? Nobody is saying what is superior. If someone wants to keep a certain style, and thereby of course exclude others, I see no problem with that. The “Wiener Klangstil” is cultural heritage that deserves preservation just like any other cultural heritage does.

        • You always conveniently ignore discrimination in other orchestras. We do hardly ever hear about the Czech Philharmonic ( who have similarly unimpressive numbers regarding women players ) , and what about the missing black players in the US orchestras ? You posted so far one article on that and probably hundreds about the VPO.
          Where are the Arab players in the Israel Philharmonic ? A quarter of the population represented zero in the national orchestra . I guess mentioning that is antisemitism , of course. Zubin Mehta has spoken out about it , so has Daniel Barenboim .
          And last not least : if the VPO is guilty of racism,Nazism , chauvinism ( and you claim they are ) , then where does that leave the conductors who conduct them ?
          Why do they get off the hook that easily ?
          Barenboim, Solti, Levine, Mehta, Welser Moest, Bernstein, Pretre,Janssons….
          Isn’t it about time to face that issue instead of attacking incessantly today’s musicians of the VPO and BPO ?

          • There are numerous reasons we discuss the VPO:

            1) Its lack of women and Asians is extreme and apparent.
            2) The orchestra has openly defended its discrimination.
            3) The orchestra has less that half the percentage of women than even the orchestras in positions 2 and 3 for exclusion, and less than a quarter of the group of orchestras that range on the lower end of the scale.
            4) The exclusion of women is viewed by millions every new years.
            5) The VPO is far more influential than orchestras like the Czech Phil.
            6) The Czech Phil is hiring women at almost three times the rate of the VPO.

          • Taub

            Besides it, gender wasn’t the great issue in Germany even during the nazi era. Leni Riefenstahl was the top director during this time regardless any other male. The same about Hanna Reitsch, magda Goebbels, Gertrud Scholtz etc. Even at the resistance there were key female such Sophie Scholl.

            I’m glad to not be a German, since it is to heavy the weight of always been mixed with things that happened even before you had born (If you are merely under 70 yo)

        • Your evocation of “anti-semitism” here is completely uncalled for and is very telling about you. I think you should apologize.

  • “We have received more than the average torrent of cynical abuse”

    It would be more convincing if you wrote “I have received” as comments show most people disagree with you on your racist/sexist/blablabla crusade against the VPO. Or they simply don’t care. Pick and choose.

    • Excellent analysis and you should add Netrebko to the VPO for good measure…
      The typical ad hominem line of defense is being used every time abuse of victimization is exposed. Next it’s going to be because of us that audience are dwindling…

    • An excellent response. Indeed, the key question should be: where is the evidence that musically superior women are losing auditions to musically inferior men.

    • Mr. Barnard is not a professional musician or critic, as the nativity and superficiality of his comments reveal. It is clear that his knowledge of classical music and European orchestras is relatively limited. Here is his bio, as listed on his blog:

      “First and foremost, I’m a Christian and follower of Jesus Christ. Somewhere else down the line, I’m a Classical aficionado, pianist, listener and avid music critic.”

      By all appearances, quite far down the line, and likely couched in some conservative, patriarchal beliefs.

        • He appears, however, to be a reasonable man who can argue well. He is never rude, bitter or incorrect; something which is necessary for a good music critic, Mr Osborne.

      • Why do you include that bio here? To make him look suspicious? What does a belief has to do with the quality of writing or knowledge? Instead of discussing the content of his response, all you do is belittling him. This shows that your way of arrogant, stereotyped thinking is not much better than the “Viennese mentality” that you so eagerly condemn.
        (Ps the great pianist Daniel Wayenberg said exactly the same about himself: Christian first, then musician.)

    • That may be the case but Mr Lebrecht does himself no favours by being so blatantly negative about everything that the orchestra does. I believe the members know what is necessary to achieve and are doing their best to achieve it. It will no doubt take time but not because of any discrimination.

      • I absolutely agree. And now quiet and lets get back to our “tunnel-visioned” existence (still better than lucidly self-delusional I guess).

  • According to a conductor I know, there is a difference in orchestras according to how many women they have, and he found the all-male Vienna orchestra far more preferable to conduct. Unless they strive to be equal in force, weight and use of tone, women tend to soften and weaken tone quality. There are fundamental differences between the genders, and women’s way of music can be quite different. I am not saying it is less valuable, but just as it used to be, it is sometimes more suited to teaching, chamber music and smaller ensembles and orchestras. At the same time, once the final stages are reached and auditioners are visible, women have an advantage when a heterosexual male music director is choosing, whether sexual or paternal. How else can one explain a young, relatively inexperienced, beautiful blonde player winning a major chair over all the experienced orchestral players in the USA? Did the Aryanism of the director not play a part? And this player has never developed the musicality of a typical player. The fact is, men do not have it easier than women, but women take advantage of their supposedly discriminated-against position all the time. Men have a far harder time teaching, but no one cries about that. Women have all-women groups but no one cries discrimination, yet it is. You can’t have it both ways. At least the VPO still provides an example of the difference. Ironically, the male they finally found to play the harp has a feminine way of playing that fits another stereotype.

    • Bravo, ZZ B. I’d add that music is an art of high personal expression. It’s unfair to women to suggest that they have exactly the same musical expression as men. Sometimes I wonder if some view it as discrimination to acknowledge that there are differences between men and women.

      • This comment made by ZZ is absolutely disgusting. And the fact that you even try and claim sexism against men because male conductors and panels could never resist a beautiful woman is insulting to, not only the talented and hard working women who win jobs, but the male panel members who voted for them. I am a female double bassist, I work very hard. I sound just as good as my male colleagues, I do not struggle with my sound, I do not have a weak tone. I am genderless in an audition. I play to the screen and do not try and sound like a man or a woman. I try and sound like a great musician. I have never had any advantages bestowed upon me for being a woman in this male dominated world of double bass. Rather, I have struggled and been kicked down time and time again for being a successful, hard working woman.
        This is 2015, why are we defending sexism??

    • Playing any instrument is quite simply physics. If you take a decibel reader and try to determine sex via “power” I think you will be disabused of the notion that men are able to play more powerfully. No matter what anyone may think is going on in a VPO audition the truth is that when you hear someone play an audition your gut says “yes” or “no”…any other excuse or reasoning past that is primarily sophistry. Are there “backroom” deals that don’t involve ability. Of course!! It is as it ever was and ever shall be the way of every business. I’m not shocked by ZZ and his ideas…its just not how the science of sound works.

    • “According to a conductor I know, there is a difference in orchestras according to how many women they have, and he found the all-male Vienna orchestra far more preferable to conduct.”

      I have owned several instrument cases by several manufacturers, made of different materials. My favourite one is red, as it is lighter than the others. Therefore, red instrument cases weigh less than other ones.

      “Unless they strive to be equal in force, weight and use of tone, women tend to soften and weaken tone quality.”

      No kidding. The exact same thing is true about men. If you play in an ensemble and you’re a vaguely competent musician, you strive to be equal in force, weight and use of tone to your colleagues unless you’re playing a solo. If you don’t do that, you sound like garbage, regardless of your gender.

      “There are fundamental differences between the genders, and women’s way of music can be quite different… it is sometimes more suited to teaching, chamber music and smaller ensembles and orchestras.”

      And sometimes it is the exact opposite. As it is with all people. Again, this has nothing to do with gender. Playing a musical instrument is not physically easy, but it does not involve an Olympic athlete level of muscular use, which is why there is no objective difference between the sound of a competent male musician and a competent female musician.

      “At the same time, once the final stages are reached and auditioners are visible, women have an advantage when a heterosexual male music director is choosing, whether sexual or paternal.”

      This is not true. Women actually have a very slight advantage over their male counterparts in an audition only if the screen stays up through the final round. In auditions where the screen comes down, men have the advantage, and that advantage becomes more pronounced the more un-screened rounds are held.

      “How else can one explain a young, relatively inexperienced, beautiful blonde player winning a major chair over all the experienced orchestral players in the USA? Did the Aryanism of the director not play a part? And this player has never developed the musicality of a typical player.”

      Kind of hard to refute this point, since you haven’t bothered to tell us what or who you are talking about. If we knew, this would still be a story about a single person winning a single audition. You can’t claim that a sample size of one provides any statistically significant information.

      “The fact is, men do not have it easier than women, but women take advantage of their supposedly discriminated-against position all the time.”

      Once again you claim the existence of evidence you have not provided, and once again it is not true.

      It is long past time for us to shun pseudoscientific and misogynistic notion that gender makes one innately better or worse at music. The theory is false. The people who perpetuate it need to step off stage before they manage to disgrace this beautiful and noble art form any further.

  • Furthermore, there are all kinds of discrimination that go on in music, perceived rankings, endorsements, power plays. Bringing social politics into the mix is just wrong.

  • “I believe that all musicians should be judged by their merit, not by their gender or skin color”. Bravissimo Andrew R. Bernard

  • This is an either/or logical fallacy. One can be against discrimination and still find no concrete evidence that the VPO is deliberately discriminating against women. As a woman, I want to be judged on my merits and win a place in a university or an orchestra based on my abilities not my gender or race.

  • Perhaps to demonstrate this ability to see both sides, we will see an editorial excoriating the sexism displayed by the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra whose sustained 80-year record of blatant selection criteria leaves the VPO in the dust. And no doubt there will be a lament to the shameful episode of the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz.
    Just another tunnel-visioned respondent.

    • Or perhaps an editorial addressing the discrimination against Arab Israeli musicians in Israel Philharmonic? After all they constitute almost 1/4 of population but strangely their representation in the national orchestra is big fat zero.Zubin Mehta has been outspoken about the problem. Why not this blog?

        • I can’t find it in a general search… we lost a large batch of posts when transferring to the present site. But it is something we have in focus and will return to at some point.

        • I can’t find it in a general search… My apologies. We lost a large batch of posts when transferring to the present site. But it is something we have in focus and will return to at some point.

  • I could hardly believe my eyes reading the late articles of mr. Lebrecht bashing the Vienna Philharmonic, but this one beats it all. Is this journalism?
    More than big bravo for Mr Andrew R. Barnard !
    ( By the way, in my hospital here in The Hague 86% of the surgeons is male, also a disgrace according to Mr Lebrecht of Dutch policy!)

  • If Mr. Lebrecht speaks of cynical abuse from his readers, I wonder what kind of cynicism is he practicing when, on one hand, blaming the VPO for not hiring enough women and, on another hand, openly bemoaning that too many Korean women are competing (and winning) in music competitions with apparently the same conscience.

  • The defenders of the Vienna Philharmonic who turn up on this site so often remind me a bit of the freakish Jackie Evancho fans who believe that she is some sacred cow, never to be criticized for any reason.

    Never mind that there’s seriously off when there are just 5 women out of 90 or 100 players on stage. And that’s in 2015 – almost 2 decades since the orchestra theoretically changed its hiring policy.

    • The Vienna Philharmonic doesn’t need “defenders”, its exceptional quality in the world of classical music speaks for itself, it cannot be judged with measures of mediocrity. That it is changing its policy towards women so slowly is probably linked with its tradition — a purely musical one, an individual, unique sound that they cherish and that was handed down mainly from father to son (so it seems).

    • Wrong an wrong again I’m afraid. There were 6 women playing (1 each of 1st violin, 2nd violin, viola,cello, flute/ picc and harp). If you actually look carefully the orchestra is quite small (just over 70 by my reckoning) and not the 90 to 100 you suggest, so the ratio improves somewhat on what you are suggesting.

      • There are 7 women in the VPO which averages around 126 members. That’s the sum result 19 years after agreeing to admit women.

        • I was merely pointing out incorrect assertions being made in Brian’s post above: there were more than 5 women on stage and a lot less than the overall 90 – 100 he is suggesting

    • If by “actual female orchestral players” you mean “one person,” you’re absolutely right. Because I have a ton of female friends trying to make it in the orchestral business, and they are livid about this garbage. Rightly so.

        • Right here, Mr. Barnard. Totally stand by Mr. Lebrecht and Mr. Osborne. I enjoy a successful career as a female orchestral player and I stand behind them both 100%.

  • This is nothing more or less than another case of confusing – whether intentionally or ignorantly – the always desirable equality of opportunity with the largely meaningless “equality” of results. They are very different concepts and absence of the latter does not necessarily mean violation of the former.

  • I find some of these comments quite abusive and personal towards Norman, and people hiding behind Anon and the likes, in case anyone finds them out. So easy to be abusive and down right rude and disrespectful to any other fellow human being when you won’t stand up and be counted, and simply hide. I wonder if some of these comments would be said to Norman to his face. I thought as professional musician that I was rejoining this site that would have grown up conversations, not personal attacks at Norman. Too bad some of you just can’t be a bit more civil. You are putting serious people off coming to this site.

    • With respect, Una, I think it is Mr Lebrecht himself who is putting off serious people and musicians from visiting this site. This is very sad.

      • Mr Lebrecht founded and owns this site. He has attracted 1.2 million monthly readers. Your view is very sad, indeed.

  • It seems to me that WPO has 12 women among them. Berlin PO has 19, and they starter hiring them quite a few years before. It will eventually even up. Wpo has to split the orchestra between half playing the new years concert and half playing in the opera. There is noone dictating where the female members will play, the players organize the rotation themselves and try to devide the workload evenly, they coulnt care less about political statements. It would seem discriminating to me if they tried to push all of the female members to play the new years concert just to make a point.

    I dont understand these discussions much anyway. We should also condemn all the british gentlemens clubs or stop playing Wagner because he was not a “nice man”. I might not agree with Gergiev political views but if I go to his concerts it is because he is a good conductor.

    • ‘We should also condemn all the british gentlemens clubs or stop playing Wagner because he was not a “nice man.”‘

      You are trying to connect completely unrelated points. Whether or not we play Wagner has absolutely no connection to whether or not we treat all human beings of equal capability as equal human beings.

  • With all do respect, I completely disagree with all your articles belittling the Vienna Philharmonic. They are far from being a discriminating orchestra! You always go back to the past, to the World War, and never realize that today we are in 21st century! Times have changed, and they remain to be the most successful orchestra in this world. They have the greatest sound, the greatest atmosphere, they play with so much joy; and your useless comments and so-called “unerwünschte” remarks will not keep this orchestra from shining and becoming more and more glorifying. In the future, get your facts straight.
    Signed by a 16 years old Austrian violinist.

    • The word “discrimination” does not mean playing badly. It means you treat someone as inferior arbitrarily.

    • The war only ended 70 years ago, which is a very short time in the evolution of cultural history. The transformation of cultural values require much longer periods than that. Germany and Austria still face serious problems with racism and xenophobia, as evidenced by the massive anti-Islamic protests that took place just before Christmas in Dresden and other cities. Germany and Austria also still have to vigilantly guard against the rise of far-right and neo-Nazi political parties.

      • With respect, right wingers are a big problem in every country on earth, Mr Osborne, not just in Austria and Germany. That includes other European countries and also the United States and the United Kingdom.

          • I hope very much that far right whingers are by far the minority in all countries including Austria and also in the VPO! This social problem exists not only in the classical music industry but in every part of society in every country

          • Very true, but you are grasping at rationalizations. It is essential that the Nazi history of the VPO and its post war influences be carefully studied.

  • “However, what is wrong remains wrong, no matter how beautiful it sounds. An orchestra that selects just five or six women players for its greatest showcase is making a statement about its identity.”

    Only if the orchestra selected a man who was not as capable as a woman candidate. I think few would argue with this point.
    However, it is those, Norman, who are guilty of “discrimination” if he or she would place a woman over a man with only a quota mindset. It also would indicate that music takes a back seat to one’s social politics, which is anathema, I hope, to most of your readers.
    You have been fuzzy on this, Norman. It is not just me who would like you to be clearer on precisely where you stand on this.
    If you disagree with my view here (shared, I think, by most), then you would not have to ask me to abandon your site. I would already be gone.

  • First of all I am not defending any position whatsoever. An orchestra is a conglomerate of human beings, is a complex organism who should find from inside the perfect balance in order to exist and work harmoniously; therefore more women or less women couldn’t be a matter of blind regulation dictated by political or social organizations.
    Reading all these posts I might conclude that most of you have no idea what means playing in an orchestra and specially in the string sections. After successfully passed the high demanding audition in which every candidate has to show capacities both stylistic and technical-musical of a top soloist the happy one will join the ranks of the orchestra with just one care : how to mingle his/her personal, glorious and gorgeous sound into the anonymous collective sonority of the given section. Mostly people are required to play an average pressure of the bow on the string and adapting the own (years long trained) vibrato to a general vibration or simply not using at all according to the authentic practice. Since the auditions take place behind the curtain nobody can detect the gender of the candidate otherwise will be no female musician selected if the policy of certain orchestras would be against women. There is no specific masculine or feminine way of playing string instruments and less a muscular-male or a delicate-female one. The,so called, big sound to be produced is not related to the capacity of anyone to pull a track or to punch somebody’s nose.
    Back to VPO ; just watch the musicians how relaxed and almost superficial are they playing their violins, violas, cellos and double-basses! Their famous sweet and mellow sound provoked a sour-bitter remark of Celibidache who said about them that VPL is a mezzoforte orchestra…but this is an other story !! Does somebody think there is a difference between a woman’s mezzoforte and a men’s one ?
    I believe that in the future the orchestras should dispose on a musicians reservoir the way a cuisine chef has his ingredients and according to the case, let’s say….. for a Bruckner Symphony they are going to use some strong, bodybilded german guys and for Scheherazade they will present some delicate asian girls.

  • And when you leftists have finished filling the VPO with mediocre women players to meet your sexist quota, you will want half of them to be black. Any vacancies for bongo players?

    • That is assuming that women can be nothing more than mediocre. I don’t think anyone is saying an orchestra like VPO should start hiring exclusively women. But to try and say they are not a sexist, bigoted organization is naïve, and frankly, somewhat offensive.

    • “Any vacancies for bongo players?” Thanks for your contribution, Tommo. Before your comment, this comment thread was just a hotbed of uneducated sexism. Now we have an element of sickening racism added in.

      • Comments such as this about “bongo players” lead one to think the forum should be operated along stricter lines — such as not allowing for anonymous posters. OTOH, the comments at least allow for clear illustrations of the chauvinistic attitudes that still surround classical music. They ironically illustrate exactly why the VPO should continue its process of change.

        • Absolutely no argument from me but as I have said (and you have conceded) the change is underway.
          Such blatant sexism and racism is truly not called for, Tommo

          • Yes, change is underway, but it is far from certain that all of the changes necessary have been completed, nor is it certain that continued scrutiny of the orchestra is unnecessary.

          • And BTW, I’ve conceded nothing. I’ve been writing about changes in the VPO for years. In fact, much of my work has been to create those changes.

  • Mr Osborne, could you please say which Philharmonikerin spoke against Asian players joining the VPO in Sweden recently? I understand that it was not possible to report directly from such an event but now it would be possible and it would be of great interest! Thank you.

    • Yes, I can say, and it is of great interest, but I won’t. I would need the journalist’s permission and backing which I do not have. I will say that the young woman who made the comment about Asians has been much in the news of late.

          • I wonder – if anything like it was said – if the actual opinion was, that members of the Vienna Phil feel that they prefer players, who were deeply immersed and brought up in their special style and world of music making. And that would mean a preference for Austrian/Bohemian young musicians.
            I would find such discrimination based on musical heritage absolutely legitimate.
            I despise the trend of globalization in everything, which is nothing but a trend toward the lowest common denominator and toward mediocrity.
            There are all the other orchestras of the world where anyone capable can find a job who would be discriminated against by the Vienna Phil.

  • Far more critical, in my view, than how many of the female VPO members are “selected” to play in the New Years concert – even though I understand the symbolism given the worldwide tv audience – is the audition practices of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. After all, the Philharmonic doesn’t conduct auditions; the Staatsoper does. And that’s a public institution that has to abide by EU employment laws. It’s interesting to compare the Vienna Symphony, which by my count has 24 women. And it’s an excellent orchestra, though it’s always tough for the #2 orchestra in a city to overcome the reputational advantage of the #1 group, no matter how good it becomes.

    But some of Mr. Lebrecht’s critics are engaging in reductio ad absurdum, implying that Mr. Lebrecht is suggesting that any female representation less than the general population constitutes discrimination (clearly he doesn’t), or that all-women orchestras (which if I’m not mistaken usually sprang up precisely to accommodate women who were excluded from the main orchestra in town) are themselves discriminatory.

    That said, I’m not sure where Mr. Lebrecht draws the line between an orchestra making legitimate artistically-based decisions (in an inherently subjective process) and discrimination; evidently he thinks only about 10% female membership in the VPO is prima facie evidence of discrimination. Hard to prove either way.

    What does interest me, though, is the relationship between the Staatsoper and the VPO. The VPO membership may be about a 97% subset of the Staatsoper Orchestra, but it’s not the stage name of the latter; it is, as many commenters always stress, a private organization that should be free to make its own rules, including about membership. In which case, one must ask where do we ever see a public institution and a private one that operate in such complete cooperation? The Staatsoper is the musicians’ primary employer, the VPO a private side activity. Yet it seems that in terms of scheduling and assignment of personnel (I have no idea about payroll), they operate as two branches of the same organization – if each has its own personnel manager, they must work together very closely. Conceivably the Staatsoper, were it to become concerned that the VPO’s policies were harming its operations or reputation, could end the relationship, or simply refuse to cooperate with the VPO on scheduling. At which point the VPO could take its players, leave the Staatsoper, and set up their own little club with their own rules, without the cushion of their Staatsoper jobs. Actually, considering their huge brand value, I’m kind of surprised they don’t just set themselves up as a full-time orchestra completely separate from the Staatsopera.

    • The VPO receives large subsidies *directly* from the Austrian Federal Government. It is thus illegal for them under both Austrian and EU law to discriminate on the basis of gender or race. In recent years attempts have been made to by-pass this by giving the subsidies directly to the Staatsoper Orchestra. The orchestra members still benefit, but it harms the VPO because they can’t use the sums for their pension fund which is where they had been applying the money.

      • Under the anti-discrimination for public employment law point of view you are correct.
        Under point of view that the Vienna Phil is a cultural heritage institution, it is on the other hand legitimate to keep the status quo, whatever it is.
        Museums for classical art for instance are cultural heritage institutions and 99% of the artists on display there are men. Do you suggest the ratio of male to female baroque painters on display has to be changed to 50/50? I guess the museums would become very small…

        • Are you saying things things haven’t changed in the last thousand years? I would hope that by 2015, gender equality would be assumed and that we feminists wouldn’t have to defend ourselves when we ask for it.

          • You do not have to “defend” yourself when you seek equality of opportunities. But none of us has any right to demand equality of the results.

  • Each of the points used to justify the under-representation of women and minorities in orchestras has been used for hundreds of other professions for decades. Not enough qualified (women, blacks, Jews, homosexuals), too few applicants, we take only the best, we would never discriminate. Even non-classical music organizations have perpetrated boys clubs. The Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra, headed by Wynton Marsalis, is infamous for excluding women. As far as I know they have no curtain at any level of the application process. Likewise, the WDR Big Band, in Cologne, where I live, has two women in the group, both recent.

    From bassoonist to firefighter, women have been pushed aside with a charge of crippling female daintiness. If extraordinary physical power were necessary for producing robust tone, the VPO first violin section would more closely resemble the Chicago Bulls, although paler, I imagine.

    • Women, demographically speaking, are inferior to men in regard to upper body strength.
      Therefore, male firefighters would probably make a better crew.

      I thought I would just put that out there in a trivial tongue-in-cheek way, but then it became apparent that this is relevant in other ways in regard to this debate.

      For example — Brahms maintained that he could tell (without looking) if a pianist was male or female.
      If he could, then it follows that composers could (and probably did and do) write music with a demographic in mind; not just an audience demographic, but write on occasion with a feeling toward the performers themselves, who they should be to get the music across.
      As a composer, if I were asked to write something for, say, Father Tony Vivaldi’s All Girls Baroque Convent Orchestra, I would incorporate this idea in my music to best feature the particular qualities I perceived such an ensemble might offer. It would be, at least, an interesting element of inspiration, and no one has the right to tell a creator what his inspiration “ought to be”.
      Or do you think you do?(!)

      • You are absolutely right. But we have to find compromises for our changing times and values.
        Back in the day composers wrote with Castrati voices in mind, but I guess nobody would seriously consider to go back to the practice of castrating young boys to have their angelic voices preserved through the biological mutation of adolescence?

        But it would be worth to seriously and objectively do research, what the factual physical and mental differences between men and women mean, when it comes to making music and playing certain instruments. Of course there are differences, that’s obvious, the question is how relevant they are and how much of it could be equalized by training.

  • This obsession with the VPO reminds me of nothing so much as Mr. Dick’s obsession with Charles I’s head in David Copperfield. I wish Mr. Lebrecht would finish his memorial once and for all and be done with it.

  • It is obvious that VPO’s hiring practices were discriminatory in the past. The best way to remedy the situation is to not discriminate anymore, naturally. Going from 0 to 7 in under two decades is a tremendous change. Hiring anyone for the purpose of fulfilling some sort of quota or in an effort to reach any kind of target percentage number – gender, race, whatever – would be blatantly discriminatory in itself which is why most commenters here are strongly opposed to that. The answer to the question in this post’s headline is “yes it is”, but counting percentages is actually conducive to causing further discrimination – whether one calls it “reverse” or by any other name – which is why the “counters” are very wrong in their approach as well as in their constant jumping to accusatory conclusions. Not a single discriminatory hiring action by VPO in this century has been shown – let alone proven – in these comments. The progress, however, is undeniable and has been acknowledged even by the orchestra’s harshest critics.

  • Although I think that the language in your editorial was rather too ‘high’, Norman; I do have to agree with your point.

    The ‘Musical Arts’ continues to cower behind the barricade of a higher, more refined sensibility that is supposed to come with artistic creation, whilst remaining one of the most prejudiced industries in the world.

    Do not for example, become a female opera singer. Unless you are a megastar, with the backing of the Board, you are seen as redundant from your late 40s onwards, especially in the major houses. And we ask ourselves where the great Verdi sopranos are? So, if you begin your career at 26, and it takes you six to eight years to work your way up the ranks (on very poor pay), you will have ten good years (at nowhere near the fees that agents bandy around, and with huge overheads). And heaven forfend that you should take time out to have children and, perhaps, become a little stout.

    Do not become an opera singer if you are non-white. Singers are still regularly turned down for roles on the basis of the colour of their skin. There is a reason why there are so many successful Chinese and Korean entrants into international vocal competitions. A quirk of history has left the faculties in China and Korea free of the faddish teaching that took place in the West after WWII. Many sing with an Italian technique that Western singers would kill for. However, apart from in Germany, where cost is the issue, how many of these singers do you see in major houses (unless it’s Butterfly or Turandot that’s being performed)?

    And soon transgender issues will come into play. Now, that’s going to be VERY interesting…

    Singers often struggle to make ends meet. They are eager to please and will spend inordinate amounts of money to get to an audition. But they look at opera houses, with administrations that are large and (to some extent, at least) financially secure, and to directors who can demand up to 9 weeks rehearsal, thus eating crucially into what little income they have, and it is no wonder that they throw their hands up in despair. And if you are further ‘handicapped’ by being female, black, yellow, short, a little overweight, or – in one memorable instance – your nose is judged to be too big, where do you stand?

    As you say, Norman, you have 1.2 million readers. Use your power wisely. Fewer articles about proposals on stage and gossip, more about the nuts and bolts, please.

  • I love football and watch as many matches on TV as possible. Now, after reading various reports on SD that the VPO is an offensive, discriminating nazi club, thus sharpening my observation faculties,I began to notice that football teams are even worse than the VPO: no female player in sight, in spite of many close-ups. I also began to notice only a very small minority of women in the public. Even the police that kept excited hooligans from the field were completely and thoroughly all-male. It al spoilt my pleasure. We live in an unfair world.

    • In many countries there are successful women’s teams. In the men’s game, there are quite a few female officials. In the UK, at least, there are rather a large number of women in the crowd for men’s matches. The BBC has a very good number of female commentators and pundits.

      Your argument is facile and redundant.

  • Important signs about the identity of current Germanic culture:

    “Politisierte Orchester. Die Wiener Philharmoniker und das Berliner Philharmonische Orchester im Nationalsozialismus.” Böhlau, Wien-Köln-Weimar 2011. This book was awarded the Irma-Rosenberg-Hauptpreis of the City of Vienna in November 2012. –
    Bernadette Mayrhofer / Fritz Trümpi. “Orchestrierte Vertreibung. Unerwünschte Wiener Philharmoniker – Verfolgung, Ermordung und Exil”. Mandelbaum Verlag [Oktober 2014]. –

    Antisemitism was not the prerogative of Germany and Austria, it was endemic from the 2nd half of the 19C onwards, in the whole of Europe, especially in Russia. The government of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was, in those times, an island of tolerance, because the empire included many different etnicities anyway, a situation which is returning in these days.

  • “However, what is wrong remains wrong, no matter how beautiful it sounds. An orchestra that selects just five or six women players for its greatest showcase is making a statement about its identity. If discrimination against women and minorities is an offence in the sight of God and law, then the VPO is a flagrant, persistent offender. It must change its ways or face the condemnation and disgust of civilised humanity. ”

    How exactly should the WP act to appease the author? Should it fire all its musicians, then rehire with a quota for women and minorities within the rehire? Such a change would surely be seen by anyone that is reasonable as absolutely absurd.

    No one is denying that the WP should have done a lot more before now in this space – indeed as it should in owning up to its dark history in relation to the Nazi period. But to me, it is taking steps (at least in relation to women – minorities is another question altogether) to rectify this.

    The nature of an orchestra such as the WP means that any change will take time – you can’t do it overnight. If someone can present evidence to show that they are continuing discriminatory processes within their hiring process, then please do so. That would change my mind. But whilst there continues to be some progress made – remember Rome wasn’t built in a day, and from little things, big things grow. It will take time – as those older members of the WP leave, undoubtedly the hardened attitudes will weaken, and those that clearly have strongly opposed change will begin to become a minority, rather than a majority.

    I would of thought you’d be celebrating the prominent role played by the female flautist in this years Concert, rather than continuing the bashing, when at least on some counts, progress is being made.

    • Andrew R. Barnard says:
      January 5, 2015 at 11:58 am

      William Osborne,

      Discrimination is okay if it’s against young, conservative Christians?

      Yes it is, if it is done by him. Mr Osborne gets to call anyone who disagrees with him a racist, sexist, an “ethno-centric” (his word creation, I think, but really just another word for racist), misogynist; he gets to call people who disagree with Norman anti-semites – I can’t remember ever seeing a post in which someone said that Norman shouldn’t investigate this subject because of his Jewish background, but maybe I missed that. But even if that is true, that should be directed against that specific person, not anyone who happens to have a different opinion on this from Norman’s.
      But then Mr Osborne himself gets to ridicule you because you identify yourself as Christian, without actually addressing any of the points you made in the text he refers to.
      That is the mental world in which Mr Osborne lives. A hermetically sealed bubble of self-righteousness. I wish he could realize just how terrible he is as a self-declared “activist” for these actually very important issues of gender and other forms of discrimination. He doesn’t do these causes any good, just abuses them as soapboxes to stand on and attract attention to himself.

      • William,

        Your condemnation of supposed discrimination in one case and justification in another seems arbitrary. You’ve never responded to my arguments, only reverted to discriminating against me. Incidentally, on my blog there is a comment from a female orchestra player who sides with me and finds Norman’s position offensive.

        • Mike Macaulay thoroughly discounted your views so there is no need for any further response from me. I’m sure you have become aware of the fact that those who harbor sexist views will be discriminated against in almost any discussion among intelligent, educated people. This is also why the VPO has faced such strong condemnation, and why it is slowly changing.

          • Like you, I believe in educated discussion. But begging the question doesn’t seem to fall under that category. Can you respond to the points laid out in my blog post instead of calling me sexist? I explain in my blog post why you can defend the Vienna Phil without being sexist? Care to respond without giving way to discriminating against me for my age and Christianity?

    • I find it interesting that Osborne criticizes Andrew Barnard for his open Christianity, making some rather large assumptions in the process (“likely couched in some conservative, patriarchal beliefs”). Yet a bit lower down, Osborne also criticizes those who object to Islamic immigration to Europe (“Germany and Austria still face serious problems with racism and xenophobia, as evidenced by the massive anti-Islamic protests”).

      The irony is rich here, because generally speaking, Muslims are a lot more conservative and patriarchal than Christians nowadays. Yet for “activists” of Osborne’s ilk, to criticize Islam would be “Islamophobia.” Apparently “Christophobia” is OK, though.

  • Andrew Barnard hits the nail on its head with:

    “……. why does the reality that more men are being added to the orchestra than women signal discrimination? Has Mr. Lebrecht considered the possibility that more men than women desire a position in the orchestra? Or perhaps the most eligible candidates are men?”

    Amen to that.

  • I think long before someone based in Britain sets out to criticize the Vienna Phil for it’s debatable discrimination of some members of society, it would deserve a much higher priority of journalistic investigation and publication and also being much closer to home, to talk about the discrimination against EVERYBODY by British classical music institutions, which have some of the worst contractual conditions for classical musicians (BBC aside) anywhere in the western world.

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