Why don’t conductors do something?

The Vienna Philharmonic have announced Mariss Jansons as conductor of their next New Yea’r Day concert.

I will ask him personally, as I have asked others in years past, to request that the ensemble fields at least ten women in the concert. He will smile, and sweetly equivocate. Nothing will change.

Conductors are supposed to have an influence on the musical process. Some of them do. In this instance, they become besotted by the ‘tradition’ of the occasion and become mere time-keepers and masters of ceremony.

The day a conductor refuses to conduct the Vienna Phil until it ends discrimination will be the day the orchestra begins to grow up.

Who’s first?

jansons concertgebouw

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  • Please, Mr Lebrecht, write to all the conductors who regularly work with the VPO and ask them their honest opinions of the orchestra..

  • Please, while you’re at it: also ask why, in 2015, there are still so few African-Americans in American orchestras.

    • Perhaps because of the widespread, almost ubiquitous, process in the US of having what are called “blind auditions”–meaning that everyone plays invisibly behind a screen and the winner is chosen sight unseen. Until this changes, there’s no real way to directly affect the orchestral demographic. (A few orchestras do remove the screen for the final rounds, however, but this all tends to be part of the various orchestras’ collective bargaining agreements.)

      • VPO do have a screen for auditions! They just take it of for the final round but even then most of candidates are…men!

      • nearly every orchestra removes the screen for the final round. Only the MET orchestra holds truly blind auditions in USA. To my knowledge, Cleveland is the only orchestra that has no screen from start to finish. Maybe check your facts first before commenting on the orchestral audition process in USA. Thanks for playing!

        • I work in the field directly and I know that some orchestras DO indeed leave the screen up all the way to the end. Also, keeping the screen up in the prelims and semifinals eliminates even more minorities since those rounds by definition have more candidates in them. Has it ever occurred to anyone that many of these same minorities aren’t even attending auditions to begin with? I speak of my own group, from first hand experience backstage managing these auditions, of which I’ve done many. Who’s to say if they are even invited to come in the first place? Candidates’ resumes are screened by the audition committees; one cannot always determine someone’s ethnic origin or race by looking at a printed name on a resume. Regardless, the job needs to go to the best musically/artistically qualified player no matter their race, ethnic origin, all that other stuff. We are firstly about artistic quality, aren’t we?

  • I hope this is only provocation… let the VPO where they are. They know also what they are doing and why.

  • If conductors influence the ‘musical process’ then asking them to fix a gender balance goes beyond that remit. Unless you are suggesting women and men play differently too.

  • The NYC is ‘classic light’ for the outside world to remind it of the existence of classical music – although there’s more than Strauss in that genre. To have it at all, was a good idea, however regrettable it is that it were nazis who got it. As rehearsed often enough in these pages, players in the VPO sit there until they retire, so places only become available slowly. It does not matter. This VPO-bashing is merely moral self-congratulation.

  • I tend to agree with Mr. Lebrecht on this matter. The same thing should be asked to conductors performing with the Berlin Philharmonic, by the way, because they have comparably few women members (14%, or 17 women total).

  • Well, I thought this year was already a lot better, the flautist featured prominently on TV was a woman and the harpist too, plus some strings.

    I’m against discrimination of women but at the same time I’m against imposing quota of any particular gender. Let them pick the best musicians who apply, irrespective of gender or race.

    • “Let them pick the best musicians who apply, irrespective of gender or race”… I am completely sure that that is exactly what they are doing. And now, without any noticeable prejudice. Anybody may apply, the best candidate wins the position.

      • No, they’re not picking the best musicians. That assumes the best musicians are men. Perhaps look at the Halle Ochestra and Sir Mark Elder. And also the token woman is, yes, a flautist or a violinist or a harpist. Not a trombonist or a percussion player. They came to the London Proms at a time when I went, about 12 years ago, and they walked on like nothing on earth, and played very ordinarily, with not one woman in the orchestra, not even a flautist, and the place was full to bursting. In fact I remember a crit in the London Times and the Guardian by critics whom we respect here in England, a couple of saying how so much better the BBC Welsh Orchestra had played the next night under Richard Hickox, and that the audience were genuinely there to hear the music, not see the ‘brand’ and acquire the tag of boasting they’d been to hear the Vienna Phil, who lived only on their name and their male denominance. All our orchestras here have so many women, and not all playing the flute or the harp! Let’s hope over the next few years it changes, but it seems the ones in now have a job for life – if only we all as musicians had a job for life!

        • Well, Austria, sadly, is about as conservative as it gets in the EU. That comes with wealth in any part of the world.

  • Should they just renew the orchestras in Berlin and Vienna to make Mr.Lebrecht happy? Or take only female players the next 30 years? Please try to think in a reasonnable Way… Vienna took a female Concertmaster…isn’t it already a step forward?
    I heard Berlin Phik didn’t keep the contrafagottist after her probation. I was surprised Mr. Lebrecht didn’t mention it.

    • I thought Sophie Dartigalongue was still with the orchestra.
      I do know that some years ago a female piccolo player failed the trial-phase, as did a female principal violist.

      • Probably because she s a woman? And they waited for a man playing piccolo, after they kicked out 2 women.

      • The female principal violist was said to be unhappy in a largely German-speaking environment. She left to become principal in the LA Phil.

        • NYMike says:
          January 2, 2015 at 5:29 pm

          “The female principal violist was said to be unhappy in a largely German-speaking environment. She left to become principal in the LA Phil.”

          No doubt the fact that Berlin is a “largely German-speaking environment” reflects a continuing influence of the Nazis, too.

          • Max Grimm says:
            January 2, 2015 at 6:10 pm

            “If I didn’t speak German, I too would be “unhappy in a largely German-speaking environment”.”

            The fact that they failed to provide the adequate environment for a monoglot American clearly indicates that there is still some kind of Nazi mindset going on there. I sense another big story!

            (Never mind that the BP is probably already the most international of all premier league orchestras, and that the principal conductor, after nearly two decades in Berlin, still doesn’t speak much German either – which I think is kind of sad…)

          • This “uncomfortable in a german-speaking environment” anecdote is truly disturbing. If you are uncomfortable in a german-speaking environment, don’t audition for the BPO.

            Even Simon Rattle, who didn’t speak German before coming to Berlin, now conducts rehearsals (at least with the chorus, evidenced in youtube videos) auf Deutsch.

  • It might also be interesting to note that several of the musicians in the VPO (and not just newcomers) are Jewish, not that it makes even a scrap of difference what their religious beliefs are!

  • It is unfortunate that there are so few African Americans with professional orchestral jobs, however there have been excellent strides made to give more opportunities to those musicians. Please check out the fellowship programs in Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, and Pittsburg. These programs are here to assist the development of these often underprivileged musicians. I believe some of these programs have been in existence for more than 15 years. It is sad, but taking up classical music to achieve a high professional standard is not obtainable for many. In fact, it is not only a very challenging profession, but a very expensive one as well. The price of lessons with top players costs at times more than $150 per half an hour. Also, let’s not forget the value of a great instrument reaching often reaching numbers beyond 6 figures. It’s a competitive industry with few spaces for even the best players to be hired. Class (income) issues are really the issue here and I believe the fellowship programs have helped give many underprivileged musicians opportunities that would otherwise not exist.

    • Well stated and thank you for pointing that out. I do believe there is, to some extent, a class issue in this field….as in many others.

  • I don’t think he’s saying he doesn’t appreciate the VPO, I think he’s questioning why there are so few women. As a woman in this profession, it is alarming and frightening to see orchestras like the VPO with so few women. And nothing is being done! It’s as if society has just accepted this with complacence. I hope something changes, because it’s a wonderful orchestra, and I would love the opportunity to audition there someday and not fear discrimination over my sex.

    • Things have changed. You are able to audition for the orchestra if you believe you are good enough. Being female is no longer an obstacle.

          • Actually, it’s 12 women out of 149 positions. The orchestra is very large because the Opera does so many performances they have to rotate the musicians. This also frees up members to play Philharmonic concerts — another way the Austrian government subsidizes the VPO.

  • What would be nice to see along with these posts about sexism & the VPO, is a set of numbers including total number of applicants for any given position and the number of female players in that group of applicants, then number of candidates auditioning and the number of female players among that group.

    • Good luck wrestling the Viennese to obtain that info! Probably facts that won’t be shared unless the EU issues a sanction for the details, (which would then need to be provided by every Union orchestra). I’m pretty sure we can get those numbers in USA either.

      • I know that I have a better chance of seeing the moon crash down on earth than seeing those numbers. I would simply like to know how many women apply.
        To me it seems that an orchestra that is persistently referred to as sexist and racist would probably not have many female and/or minority applicants to begin with.

        • If I were a black lesbian trombone player looking for an orchestra position, I would opt for New York and not Vienna, because I would feel that in NY I would add to the cultural identity of the local community. If I were a militant, short-haired leftwing female feminist, I would not want to be accepted in a London gentlemen’s club. If I were a bigotted atheist, I would not want to become pope. If I were a brilliant Viennese violinist with a profound wish to leave my private life, populated with amorous complications in coffee houses, behind at work in an environment without temptations, I would opt for the VPO – but soon that option would evaporate under the pressures of totalitarian political correctness from abroad.

      • Oh yea, let’s have the EU bureaucracy get into this… If you guys want to kill classical music for good.

  • Good luck wrestling the Viennese to obtain that info! Probably facts that won’t be shared unless the EU issues a sanction for the details, (which would then need to be provided by every Union orchestra). I’m pretty sure we can get those numbers in USA either.

  • In American orchestras it was not until the advent of the curtain for auditions that women and other minorities started to make inroads into major orchestras. Auditions in America are like the Olympics…are all the stars in alignment that day for you to “win”? Also given the glacial rate of change in personnel in the major orchestras (where people stay for at least 30 years) it seem that changes are not happening even when they are. And finally, at the conservatory I attended the percentage of African-Americans was well below the demographic of the general population (in the general population it is 13 %) while the Asian percentage was much higher than the general population (which is about 5%). In fact the real question is why have the demographics of music institutions NEVER been reflected in major orchestras around the world? Look at historical pictures of graduating classes of famous music institutions all over the world…they will surprise you. It is not just the percentage of women it is also all currently under represented groups.

  • Is it a guest cnductor’s place, having accepted a conducting gig, to tell an organisation what its hiring practices have to be in order him to fulfill the contract he has signed?

    Or perhaps NL thinks the guest conductor should make accepting a gig contingent upon the large organisation adding superfluous staff to its roster within a year or else replacing a set number of existing staff — some of whom are bound not to be due to be replaced — with his specified (politically acceptable) alternatives, thus arbitrarily putting some people out of work. A female trumpet is available and keen, so a trumpeter has to go, ready or not, because he is male…

    I can think of some “isms” that such requirements conjure up. And none of them is feminism.

  • What about the “differently-abled”? It’s well-known that the VPO (not to mention other German-speaking orchestras) discriminates against candidates in wheelchairs, the blind, the deaf. And one could argue, too, that the insisting that candidates be able to read music is similarly “exclusionary.” Perhaps if they discriminated against Zubin Mehta, they might turn out a less dreary New Year’s concert!

    • But now I think about it…. ALL orchestras are terribly disciminative against unmusical and inadequate players. Why are there orchestras at all? They exclude anybody who doesn’t like classical music and can’t play an instrument. It is a scandal that they even got their own building. And all that without reflecting the average balances of society. What we should do, in the name of freedom, democracy, human rights and a just society, is arresting all those players and lock them up in camps where they will be taught about freedom, equality and civil society.

  • What about discrimination against men in Amsterdam Concertgebouw first violin section? More of the half are women

    • Come on, that’s OK since men are all chauvinistic sexist pigs unless they have the proper sexual orientation, skin color and political opinions, dontcha now… /sarc off

    • So, what about the St. Louis Symphony? Don’t think there are any men in that violin section. The last time I visited the NYPHIL it was basically all women as well. I guess that was a fair oversight with a male concertmaster.

    • The Concertgebouw Orchestra is a good case study. It has long been considered as one of the truly elite orchestras. If you were to look at video recordings from the 1980s and even early 90s you would see that the Concertgebouw violins were mostly male. Then with Ricardo Chailly it was determined that the orchestra would shift into playing more modern music. It was also determined that a shift in the orchestra’s sound was needed, with a desire for more clarity and less of the thick, burnished tone the Concertgebouw Orchestra was famous for. That was achieved, and it is obvious how it was achieved. With nearly all female violins! This isn’t criticism. The orchestra wanted their sound to change and they changed it. It is still an incredible orchestra, and perhaps more flexible, but the sound HAS changed! The VPO does not want or need a sonic remake. We all know they play romantic music very well. And the VPO play classical-period works better than any other major orchestra in the world. Despite unfounded criticisms they also play the modern works that they CHOOSE to play as well as any orchestra in the world. They are incredibly flexible sonically. I do hope the VPO admit more women, but I support them accomplishing this in a controlled way. Tuning an instrument is a delicate process.

    • This is a remarkable video. Can you tell us any more about this orchestra? The website, all the info is in Dutch. Thank you!

      • About The Orchestra of The Netherlands – On The Way To The Concert Hall – Autumn 2014

        HetOrkestvanNL on RTL4, a commercial Dutch broadcaster willing to give classical music broad attention in the Netherlands:
        In the program the unique musical quest for a 65-piece orchestra of amateur musicians was the central focus. Young and old with a great passion and love for an instrument participated. Pieces from the (mainly) classical repertoire to an arrangement of a famous pop hit and even a piece with a DJ; the musicians had to be capable to play it all, and therefore be able to stand a little pressure.

        The potential musicians were selected, coached, guided and assisted by a highly skilled jury of professional musicians. The selection process started by pre-selection from letters, tapes, etc. of the applicants, the potential orchestra members. After the pre-selection about 150 participants were chosen to perform in a 1st round (with broadcast in 2 editions at RTL4). Part of the 150 musicians were immediately selected to participate in the finale concert, others were given masterclasses by members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra to achieve a higher level. The latter had to succeed through a 2nd round (again broadcast by RTL4), after which part of them went through to the rehearsals and finale concert of 22 December 2014. The concert was to include performances with members of the jury (conductor and soloists). The concert itself was live broadcast from the Concertgebouw Amsterdam by RTL4.

        A great deal of the participants had their own personal stories about their passion and why they had not become a professional musician. Some of them could not achieve the professional musical life because of personal dramas as for instance, illness. However, they were able to perform the finale concert as one of a lifetime! And that culminated into tears during the concert, of happiness and sadness. More specifically, the lady on the oboe suffers from incurable illness; to her John Williams’ Schindler’s List represented all her feelings of frustration but also hope. The playing of the violin soloist, oboist and orchestra caused a lot of tears and emotions to quite a few members in the orchestra (and audience!), completely understandable.

        The series reached a of lot viewers and positive response, and resulted in a packed Concertgebouw and a great concert. So hopefully this was and will be an impulse for more people to experience the joy of classical music!

    • This is quite moving! Bittersweet. The woman’s name is Davida Scheffers and the beautiful blonde in the audience is her daughter, Ayla. I was curious as to why they kept cutting to the girl with the movie star looks. If you google ‘Davida Het Orkest van Nederland’ you can find additional info, though all I have found is in Dutch.

  • If being all male is a guarantee of superiority for the VPO, why not simply allow them to remain that way? They will be forced to prove themselves the absolute best in every public appearance. So far, however, their record, while good, is certainly not impeccable.

  • and along those lines, why are there so few women plumbers and truck drivers, and why are there so few men working in nail salons? maybe we should boycott all of those unequal professions too? or just let the VPO be the VPO …

  • He could ask that. But I’m rather shocked that he would speculate about Mr Janssons’ response. Surely this has already reached Mr. Janssons’ agent.

  • Mein Gott, zis is another major setback. Not only have zey worked with many talentless Jewish conductors in ze last decades, not only have zey played so many times zis abominable composer Mahler, but now zey also want to include Asians and females in ze orchestra! What happened to zeir principles? Ze last decent Nazi who conducted was Herbert von K., but even he was…rotten to ze core! He had ze audacity to bring a BLACK FEMALE singer in Wien in 1987!

  • Previous discussions about other bands on this site have tended to conclude that a conductor should deal with the music, but should not be permitted to hire’n’fire, bring in their favourites or alternative players while an orchestra has their own full complement, and so on. Why should this be different here? We can’t have it both ways.

  • I m quitr sure that Jansons and co don’t care at all about NL ‘s Problem. This conductors care ONLY about making good music. Nothing about having women or not in the orchestra…

  • There seems to be a perception by many that conductors are clean in ANY goings on with their orchestra. Personally speaking and knowing WAY too much, not the usually… So asking conductors to do the right thing will only get you pretty much nowhere.

    Regarding screens, I agree that he MET is one orchestra that is above board. Others stand out as well as doing the screen until finals and totally fair. So it seems… In a few auditions that I personally know of, there have been cases of coughing as a signal, “accidentally” speaking, and one that was truly shocking: seeing someone pacing the floor in the balcony, definitely able to see who was auditioning.
    Times HAVE changed which translates into better accommodations for the rounds, with private rooms to warm up, notifications along the way, etc.

  • That is the biggest load I have ever heard. Are you insinuating that women can’t play romantic/classical music as well as men? That the VPO needs to admit women in a “controlled way”?

    If this were the other way around, the VPO was blatantly discriminating against men, people would be outraged. But because society has come to expect sexism without questioning it, people praise the VPO for sticking to their sexist, bigoted values. As a woman in this profession, it honestly makes me sick. I have had to work so hard to get up the totem pole on an instrument predominantly played by men. I have had to see the disappointment on the panel’s faces when I walk out in the final round, a petite woman. I have had to deal with sexism in music for my entire life. And then I come to this site, and people are defending it. It really does make me sick.

    • Mr. Osborne: Yes, I’m saying women must be introduced into the Vienna Philharmonic in a controlled way so that changes in the orchestra’s sound can be assessed. And no, I do not think that women cannot play romantic repertoire. Nowhere in my post is that even implied. What is implied is that the change in the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s sound to a brighter signature strangely coincided with the transformation of the strings to a clear female majority.

  • Well, the possibilities are:
    1. That women candidates for posts are consistently less good than their male counterparts-not very likely if one looks at the rest of the world.
    2. That women are put off from applying to the VPO because of its past reputation and perhaps present ethos-not so unlikely.
    3. That there is still underlying, unannounced and unacknowledged discrimination against women-also not so unlikely.
    Which of these applies? As the British satirical magazine Private Eye would say: we think we should be told.

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