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Ozawa Conducts the 

Vienna Philharmonic's New Years Concert: Tokenism and Public Relations  

 

 

by William Osborne 

January 1, 2002

 

Seiji Ozawa conducted today's New Years Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic.  This is worthy of comment since the ensemble has traditionally excluded visible members of "racial minorities" from rank and file membership in the orchestra in the belief that they would destroy the ensemble's image of Austrian authenticity.[1] 

 

Ozawa's appearance cannot be taken as proof that this policy is changing.  Though the Vienna Philharmonic has maintained gender and ethnic uniformity among its members, they allow for outside influence through guest conductors and soloists.  They have found it beneficial to consciously use these guests to rehabilitate the orchestra's public image, while at the same time quietly denying rank and file membership to women and racial minorities.  This has been an effective public relations tool for resisting change, and fits with sociological models which suggest that isocratic groups form controlled relationships with outsiders to mutually enhance their image and status.

 

Ozawa's direction of the New Years concert is also noteworthy since the administration of the Vienna State Opera has made Ozawa its General Music Director.  The Vienna Philharmonic is a private enterprise the Vienna State Opera Orchestra runs on the side. The State Opera Orchestra is owned and operated by the Austrian Federal Government and its conductor is appointed by the house's Artistic Direction--not the orchestra. 

 

Under the Philharmonic name, the ensemble uses only guest conductors they choose themselves.  (It has been Philharmonic policy since the end of the Second World War to not have a chief conductor.) Ozawa is not one of the Philharmonic's favored conductors--he has led them only twice in the past while others such as Muti, Abbado and Maazel have directed them repeatedly.  (Maazel has led the New Years Concerts eight times.)

 

Ozawa is keenly aware of his unique situation.   After J÷rg Haider's ultra-right party entered the Austrian government, Ozawa visited Vienna (in March of 2000) to meet with friends and to assess, firsthand, the political climate.[2]  Haider, who has praised both Hitler and the SS, and has referred to the concentration camps of the Holocaust as "punishment camps", campaigns on a politic of anti-foreigner xenophobia.

 

In a news conference before his visit, Ozawa told reporters that he could no longer ignore developments in Austria: "To me, music must be away from the political movement. I am not thinking of changing my mind  about my musical life because of a politician but, again, I must go and see."[3]

 

Ozawa's appointment by the State Opera's administration produces an interesting dynamic, since it stands in stark contrast to the orchestra's traditional practice of excluding Asian musicians from its rank-and-file membership[4].  It is almost impossible to find a major orchestra without Asian members, including those in the German-speaking world, such as the Berlin Philharmonic which has several, including a concertmaster.   One conductor of color in front of the Vienna Philharmonic does little to alleviate concerns about it being one of the only all-white orchestras in the world--a situation created by overt racism. 

 

The Vienna Philharmonic recently held a press conference to announce that Ozawa would conduct today's concert, which is broadcast to over one billion people worldwide through about 50 broadcasting corporations.  During the conference Ozawa noted that he is the first Asian to lead the Vienna Philharmonic's New Years Concert.   Even though he has conducted the most difficult works in the symphonic repertoire, he said he hoped he would live up to the task of directing the concert's Viennese waltzes.   The orchestra's chairman, Clemens Hellsberg, quickly changed the subject.

 

Tokenism and Public Relations

 

Due to the recent retirement of harpist, Anna Lelkes, there are once again no women in the Vienna Philharmonic.  Another woman harpist, Julie Palloc,  who is French, began working with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra in 2000 and will be eligible for official entry into the Philharmonic in 2003.  Even though she is not yet a member of the Philharmonic, she was used for today's New Years concert -- an important token representation for the ensemble's public image.  Activists should not anticipate support from Palloc. In an interview in the Austrian weekly, News, shortly after her employment, Palloc dismissed the prospect of protests during the orchestra's 2000 America tour as "ridiculous" and added that whether the orchestra plays "with men or women is completely beside the point." 

 

In the five years since the Vienna Philharmonic/Vienna State Opera Orchestra voted to end its discrimination, it has hired only one woman who doesn't play harp -- violist, Ursula Plaichinger, who won an audition on February 13, 2001.[5]  It was predictable that a tutti violist would be the first non-harpist woman to obtain a position, since the viola is one the symphony orchestra's most accompanimental instruments.  When another violist, Gertrud Rossbacher, applied for a more prominent solo viola position in the orchestra she was not allowed to audition even though she was born in Vienna, educated at the Vienna Musik Hochschule, and a member of the Berlin Philharmonic.  She was 35 at the time. The State Opera/Vienna Philharmonic said she was over the age limit of 30 even though the man they hired was 32. [6] 

 

If the Philharmonic continues to hire a woman only every five years it will take 75 years to hire the 15 women necessary to represent even 10% of the orchestra.  Since at least half of those women would retire within that time, the current rate of employment will never allow women to exceed token levels of about 5%.

 

In order to deal with the image problems caused by these discriminatory policies the Philharmonic engaged a public relations agency and began activities to improve their reputation.  These have included chamber music concerts in Israel, and chamber concerts for Jewish groups in New York City where the orchestra has met with street protests.  These efforts also included a controversial memorial concert in the Mauthausen concentration camp.  After a dispute with the organizers, the  architectural firm engaged to design and build the stage described the event as being like a Hollywood Bowl in Mauthausen:

 

 "We did not lose our sense for tact and decency--quite the contrary:  In our concept there were no video screens in the Appellplatz, no sponsoring, no 'Hollywood Bowl' as a stage for the Vienna Philharmonic and Wiener Singverein--, no amplification systems as in a tent festival.  We wanted to realize the memorial with tact, decency and sensibility. [7] 

 

The Philharmonic's public relations firm also organized a dinner party for selected members of the orchestra and New York press. In private correspondence to this author, one of the journalists said the effects of the dinner were not entirely positive.  The journalist said that a woman present asked about the orchestra's discrimination, and that the members' answers were so appalling "they confirmed the worst allegations" made against the ensemble. 

 

In December 2000, the highly respected German news magazine, Focus, interviewed musicians in the orchestra.  The  reporter also noticed that the situation is not so clear or hopeful as one might assume:

 

"Officially, it is said, no women at the auditions have been good enough. But of course, there is also an unofficial opinion: 'There is no question that women play differently than men,' said a musician quite plainly.  This would be a very different sound, even if she had studied with the same teacher as a male Philharmoniker.  A colleague stood nearby: The immense amount of work would scare women away.  A glance at the rehearsal plan -- and they would be gone.  Where?  He shrugged his shoulders.  Food, kitchen and childbirth, he seems to say." [8]

 

These statements were made three years after the orchestra presumably opened its doors to women.

 

The 2002 New Years Concert

 

The Vienna Philharmonic continues to discriminate, but due to cleverly managed tokenism and an effective public relations campaign, protest against the orchestra and the institutions that support it, such as Carnegie Hall, have become difficult.  On the other hand, change is slowly becoming apparent.  The Philharmonic has very unique and almost inimitable ways of performing its waltzes.  They often largely ignore the conductors, such as Muti and Maazel, who lead the New Years concerts since most do not know these very specific styles, but  this year they followed Ozawa rather closely.  It is unusual for the Philharmonic's boss at the State Opera to also conduct the New Years concert.  Like most Maestros, Ozawa knows how to make his will felt, and he will no doubt have the full backing of the Opera's administration.  Especially in its opera formation, the orchestra will have to take him very seriously.

 

Ozawa also selected a repertoire of light classics that were outside the norm of the New Years concerts.  The program was interestingly heavy on operetta and light on waltzes.   Of course, there were some conflicts in works such as the waltz  "Wiener Blut." ["Vienna Blood", written for one of the aristocracy's balls.]  Perhaps for that reason the television cameras spent most of the time during that work focused on the chandeliers and ceiling murals.  Afterwards, the television commentator's remarks about "free, fresh, authentic and red Viennese blood" brought back memories of the orchestra's bizarre ethnic and racial ideologies.

 

On the other hand, Austrian State Television (ORF) prominently pictured an Asian child who was one of the young ballet dancers that are part of the show.  They also included shots of some Japanese members of the audience.  Several orchestra members stood and said "Happy New Year" in various languages.  Articles about the orchestra and protests against its employment policies seem to have set many of the ensemble's agendas.

 

Even if women will represent only a token part of the orchestra, they will still have an effect, and it will become more and more impossible to exclude them or keep them at only token levels.  The inexorable forces of history are aligned against the Vienna Philharmonic's chauvinism.  The ultimate victory will belong to the International Alliance for Women In Music and all of the women of the world they represent.

 

ENDNOTES

 

[1]  For further documentation see:  William Osborne, "The Image of Purity: The Racial Ideologies of the Veinna Philharmonic in Historical Perspective" <http://www.osborne-conant.org/purity.htm>.

 

[2] Peggy Hernandez and Richard Dyer, "Ozawa Plans Vienna Return To Assess Political Climate",  The Boston Globe (February 17, 2000) Page: E1.

 

[3]  Ibid.

 

[4]  For documentation and discussion specifically related to the exclusion of Asian musicians see:  William Osborne, "The Special Characteristics of the Vienna Philharmonic's Racial Ideologies" at: <http://www.osborne-conant.org/posts/special.htm>

The highly respected German news magazine, Focus, recently printed an

article about the Vienna Philharmonic entitled "Ein Himmel Voller Geigen"

(December 31, 2000) which reports that a "half-Japanese" is now being

"allowed" to play with the orchestra:

 

"Even a half-Japanese, son of a Philharmoniker, is now allowed to fiddle

along.  For a long time this was considered unthinkable, because the

television pictures of the New Year's Concert, Mozart Masses and Beethoven

Symphonies were broadcast as nostalgic greeting cards of Middle European

'blessedness' to the whole world." 

 

("Sogar ein Halbjapaner, Sohn eines Philharmonikers, darf jetzt mitgeigen.

Das galt lange als undenkbar, weil die Fernsehbilder von Neujahrskonzert,

Mozart-Messen und Beethoven-Symphonien als Gru▀karten nostalgischer

Mitteleuropa-Seligkeit in alle Welt gesendet wurden.")

 

This is one of the few occasions that the Vienna Philharmonic's discrimination against people who are visibly members of racial minorities has been acknowledged in the established media.  The sentence is difficult to translate in its subtleties.  The term "Halbjapaner" in German can have an ugly tone approaching "half breed."   There is a quality of racial sarcasm to the statement that is disturbing because it is difficult to determine how ironically it was meant.

 

[5]  Ms. Plaichinger's situation is very tenuous.  She is now in the mandatory

trial year required of all new employees by the State Opera Orchestra --

during which her contract can easily be terminated.   She will not be

eligible to enter the Vienna Philharmonic until she completes a three year

tenure in the opera.  If all goes well, she will become a member in 2004.

 

There are several additional factors that suggest the State Opera Orchestra/Vienna Philharmonic will practice tokenism:

 

           <http://www.osborne-conant.org/status.htm>

 

  • The Berlin Philharmonic employed its first woman in 1980, but after 21 years women still represent less than 12% of its personnel.  Other orchestras in central Europe have followed similar patterns.

 

  • After the Berlin Philharmonic hired its first woman, it took 16 more years to hire its first woman wind player with a regular contract.  To this day, the Berlin Philharmonic still has only two women in its wind section.  Again, other orchestras follow similar patterns.  The majority of women are usually employed as tutti string players.

 

  • In response to protests against the Vienna Philharmonic, the Czech Philharmonic ended its exclusion of women  in 1997 by hiring three tutti violinists.  (They were added to two women harpists.)  Since then only one other woman has been hired, a violist.

 

These historical patterns suggest that the Vienna Opera/Philharmonic will exclude women from solo positions and the wind section for at least another fifteen years.  The State Opera's recent treatment of Ms. Rossbacher provides concrete evidence that these same patterns are already established.  This helps explain why Wolfgang Schuster, who is a percussionist in the orchestra and its press secretary, is already defensively speaking about the "dangers of quotas." 

 

[6] Jan Herman, "For Violist the Rules Never Seemed to Change", Los Angeles Times (February 27, 1998.)

 

[7] "Necessary Critic, False Addressee",  Der Standard (May 16, 2000)  which was written by the architectural firm commissioned to design the stage and lighting for the event.   The historian Marie-Theres Arnborn, described the event as an "insulting and frivolous spectacle." _Der Standard_  (May 6, 2000.)  See also the criticisms of Michael Hausenblas, "Vom Mahnen an das Gedenken"  _Der Standard_ (April 22, 2000)  For additional discussion and documentation see various articles at: <http://www.osborne-conant.org/posts.htm>.

 

[8]  "Ein Himmel Voller Geigen" _Focus_ (December 31, 2000.)

 

[You may forward this article.  Please include the endnotes.]

 

 

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