Alex Ross Pressured Over Comments About Vienna Philharmonic

January 8, 2007

 Many music blogs and discussion lists have linked to my recent update about
the Vienna Philharmonic, including which receives about
20,000 visitors per day.  The latest report has been read by thousands of

Alex Ross, the music critic for the _New Yorker_, discussed the report in
the January 1st entry of his blog "The Rest Is Noise."  He described the
Philharmonic's practices as "thoroughly disturbing" and "Neolithic."

(You can find Alex Ross's blog here: )

On January 3rd he included an additional posting, mentioning that he had
been contacted by "a very respectable member of the music business who has
worked with the Vienna Philharmonic." The businessman claimed that the
orchestra has changed and that "bringing women into its ranks is a high
priority." Ross seemed skeptical, and replied that, "whatever the good
intentions of more liberal-minded people in the organization, progress over
the past ten years has been conspicuously slow."

The businessman is probably the owner of one of the VPO's American agencies.
(I should also remind readers that ten years after nominally opening its
doors to women, there has been no change in the Philharmonic's m/f ratio. It
is still 136 to 1.  And there are still only two people of color in the
orchestra, both of whom are only half Asian.)

This raises an important question.  Why would a "very respectable member of
the music business" defend a record that clearly indicates the continuance
of sexism and racism?  Of course, the question is largely rhetorical.  Most
professionals know that "music business" in New York is often anything but
respectable.  The Philharmonic's American agents make huge amounts of money
through its yearly visits to America , so they turn a blind eye to the
orchestra's continuing bigotry -- as does the administration of Carnegie

Is it unreasonable to think that some of these elite supporters might even
have a certain amount of sympathy for the VPO's bigotry?  Afterall,
classical music in New York remains as white as snow in a city with two
million African-Americans.

The higher echelons of New York 's classical music world are often funded
and strongly influenced by extremely wealthy, conservative whites.  The
diamond and mink studded patrician rituals at institutions like the
Metropolitan Opera are among the most extreme in the world.   Does this
uniquely American style of arts funding strengthen socio-economic and racial
biases in the demographic of classical music?

An obvious class system is literally laid out in the structure of our
concert halls.
Only the very wealthy can afford the best seats.  Then come lesser seats for
the middle class.  And the worst seats, the high balconies that often have
poor acoustics and no sight-lines, are reserved for the lowest economic
classes who must often stand through entire performances.  Americans often
refer to these poor quality seats as the "peanut gallery," but due to our
racist history, another name for these high balconies (especially in movie
theaters during the Jim Crow era) used to be "nigger heaven."  (For more
details see: )

When "respectable members of the music business" defend a racist orchestra
like the Vienna Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall, does it suggest that the
ethos that created terms like "nigger heaven" isn't so far in our past as we
might wish?  I know it is a terribly provocative and troubling thought, but
I think it might be worth considering.

If nothing else, you simply need to look around at the almost exclusive
whiteness at just about any classical music event to see that something is
really wrong.  Maybe it is no surprise that places like Carnegie Hall have
so little trouble with the Vienna Philharmonic's racism and sexism.

William Osborne