Posted on February 24, 2011

Vienna Philharmonic Must Answer for Exclusion

Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, February 20, 2011

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which arrives in Berkeley this week for a three-concert series that marks its first Bay Area visit in more than 20 years, is by common agreement one of the finest orchestras in the world. It’s composed of some of the leading instrumentalists of Europe, their individual musical voices fused into a seamless communal sound that is steeped in a century and a half of tradition.

As it happens, all but four of those musicians are men, and all of them are white. {snip}

American music lovers ought to be having a real debate about just what it means for an artistic edifice so grand and arresting to be built on a foundation of more-or-less explicit sexual and racial discrimination.


What we can’t do, though, is pretend that the VPO is an orchestra just like any other. It’s not. It’s the living embodiment of an exclusionary philosophy that should, at the very least, give any thoughtful person pause.


Organized protests

Then, in the face of some organized protests during an American tour, the orchestra, which is self-governing, relented–a little. One woman, a harpist who had been an adjunct of the orchestra for decades, was admitted to the ranks.


The ban on racial minorities–which, in the context of the European musical scene, basically means Asians–has been unstated but even more determined. An attempt to parse the names on the orchestra’s current roster suggests the possibility of one part-Japanese violinist, but otherwise the sea of white faces that will fill the stage of Zellerbach Hall promises to be unbroken.

That very homogeneity, according to one view, is what lends the VPO its distinctive character–it’s a feature, not a bug. In a 1996 radio interview, for example, transcribed and translated by the musicologist William Osborne, one member described the orchestra’s demographic makeup as an essential component of its style.

“The way we make music here is not only a technical ability, but also something that has a lot to do with the soul,” he said. “The soul does not let itself be separated from the cultural roots that we have here in central Europe. And it also doesn’t allow itself to be separated from gender.”

To his credit, the speaker went on to acknowledge the obvious fact that the orchestra’s policies are both sexist and racist–but added that he believed these ills to be worth accepting. {snip}

In all honesty, it’s not obvious how to respond on a practical basis to this imbroglio. On one level, I’m grateful to Cal Performances for bringing the orchestra here, and I can’t deny that I’m looking forward to hearing the concerts.

But at the very least, I’d expect that the proponents of the VPO’s policies should be compelled to defend them–frequently, vigorously and consistently. Surely the default position in America should be an opposition to blatant discrimination, and the burden of proof should be on those who favor it.

Easy complacency

Yet that hasn’t happened. If the VPO’s exclusionary policies are a scandal, so too is the easy complacency with which they have been accepted by audiences and promoters in this country throughout the decades that the orchestra has toured here.


But all too often, the matter has been greeted with a collective shrug, and the opposition met in turn with hostility. The prevailing attitude seems to be that issues of politics and morality–the sort of issues that most people can perceive clearly in connection with, say, corporate glass ceilings or the patronage of lunch counters–are suddenly off limits where music is concerned.