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Genteel Discretion and Easy Complacency

(The status of women and minorities in 

the Vienna Philharmonic, December 2011)



By William Osborne

December 31, 2011


In response to international protests and wide-spread, negative media coverage, the Vienna Philharmonic nominally ended its policy of excluding women in 1997.  The orchestra allowed its harpist, Anna Lelkes, who had performed with them for 26 years in an associate position, to become an official member.  Unfortunately, the changes stopped there.  For the next ten years (1997-2006,) no further women were given membership, except for Ms. Lelkes’ replacement, the harpist Charlotte Balzereit.[1]


By 2007, the Vienna Philharmonic once again faced protest and negative media because it had reneged on its promise to hire women.   To counter these problems, the orchestra allowed five women to become members between 2007 and 2011. They are listed below, along with their instrument and year of membership[2].  Clicking on their pictures will lead to a website with more information about them.


Charlotte Balzereit

 harp, 2004

Ursula Plaichinger

 viola, 2007

Isabelle Ballot

first violin, 2008

Daniela Ivanova

viola, 2010

Olesya Kurylak

first violin, 2011

Albena Danailova

concertmaster, 2011  



Even with these additions, the Vienna Philharmonic still has the lowest ratio of women members in the world – 121 to 6.[3]  And not surprisingly, during the 14 years since it agreed to admit women, it has hired them at a lower rate than any other orchestra.


The Glacier Stops Moving


The Vienna Philharmonic also functions as the Vienna State Opera Orchestra.  To enter the Philharmonic, musicians must first be hired by the Vienna State Opera and complete a tenure period which is usually about three years.  Only one member of the Opera Orchestra has not been given membership in the Philharmonic after completing a tenure period, the cellist Ursula Wex, who was hired in 2003.  For the last eight years, she has been denied membership in the Vienna Philharmonic because she took maternity leave while a member of the State Opera Orchestra.


The Vienna State Opera Orchestra has not hired any new women members in the last four years, so aside from Ms.Wex whose situation is unlikely to change, there are currently no further women in the orchestra who can be tenured into the Philharmonic.[4] (Exceptions might exist if the Opera Orchesrtra has hired women with contracts beginning in this season, i.e. September 2011.  The State Opera is often a few months behind in updating its website, which is what I use to monitor the new hires.)   Even if a woman is hired in 2012, she will not be eligible for membership in the Philharmonic until at least 2015.  This means that for at least the next three years, the rate of increase for women in the Vienna Philharmonic will be 0%.  (And if any women have been engaged for the beginning of the current season, they would probably also not be tenured into the Philharmonic until 2015.) 


This also means that in the 18 years between 1997 and 2015, the Philharmonic will have given only six women membership, even though over half of the orchestra’s personnel will have been replaced during this period.  The Vienna Philharmonic thus lags far behind international norms.  Below is a table showing the total percentages of women in seven comparable major orchestras, and the increase in the membership of women during the four years from 2005 to 2009[5]:


Orchestra % of women % increase 2005-09
Gürzenich Orchester (orchestra of the Cologne Opera) 37.50% 9.27%
New York Philharmonic 48.91% 8.32%
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg 37.21% 7.21%
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin 27.50% 6.53%
Chicago Symphony 34.34% 6.46%
Opera Orchestra of Zurich 45.22% 6.43%
Concertgebouworkest 35.04% 6.09%


In only four years, the ratio of women in these major orchestras increased by up to 9%, while the Vienna Philharmonic will have only increased its membership of women to 4.7% in the 18 years from 1997 to 2015. 


Variations In Rates and Ratios


In major orchestras, musicians work on average about 30 years before retirement.  In an average sized orchestra, this creates about a 4.3% yearly turnover for their personnel.  (There is a variable margin of error in this number, since some musicians work longer than 30 years, and some leave sooner due to deaths or jobs such as professorships.) The Vienna Philharmonic averages about 130 members, so this comes to about 5.2 musicians per year that need to be hired as replacements for retirees.  This allows us to reasonably estimate the m/f ratios for new hires in the Vienna Philharmonic as shown in the table below:


VPO By Year

Est. number of 

new men hired

New women hired

% of women 

among new hires

1997-2006 52 1 1.96%
2007-2011 21 5 19.23%
2012-2015 15.6 0 0%


Even accounting for a large margin of error in the estimates for men hired, we see radical variations in the ratio of women among new hires during these three periods.  After the Philharmonic agreed to admit women in 1997, the intense media scrutiny of the orchestra and the protests against it dropped off considerably.  The Vienna Philharmonic was thus allowed to continue its discrimination and not hire any women aside from one woman harpist for the next ten years. 


In 2007, scrutiny of the Philharmonic increased after I published a widely read article documenting the continued exclusion of women, and combined it with a case study about the orchestra’s abuse and firing of a recently hired woman violinist.  To counter the renewed controversy, the Philharmonic gave membership to five women in the next five years (2007-2011,) including a woman concertmaster.  This raised the ratio of women among new hires during this five year period to about 19.23% -- which approaches international standards for major orchestras in the German-speaking world.  It also raised the overall membership of women in the Vienna Philharmonic during this five year period by 0.78% per year which is slightly above the international standard of 0.71% per year. 


The State Opera’s employment of a woman concertmaster, Albena Danailova (pictured at right,) was a media sensation and improved the orchestra’s image.  This is consistent with sociological models which suggest that isocratic organizations resist change by placing outsiders in key positions to justify and rationalize the same group’s exclusion in the rank and file.  As expected, protests and media scrutiny were once again greatly reduced, which allowed the State Opera Orchestra to not hire any additional women for the next four years (2008-2011.)  


Since no new women have been hired by the State Opera Orchestra in four years, there are currently none waiting to be tenured into the Philharmonic (except Ms. Wex whose status is unlikely to change.)  Even if a woman is hired in 2012, she will have to wait at least three years before becoming a member.  The ratio for women among new members in the Philharmonic will thus reflect the Staatsoper's reduction and drop to 0% for at least the next three years.


We see a similar pattern in the political activity against the orchestra in Austria .  When media scrutiny increases, a small group of politicians protest against the orchestra and call for investigations and cuts in funding.  The Philharmonic then makes a few public relations gestures and the officials forget the matter.  There are no Austrian politicians or officials who have pursued the issue with enough consistency and effectiveness to move the ratios for women in the orchestra toward international norms.


Biased Auditions


One reason the ratios for women remain low is that the audition process for the Vienna State Opera Orchestra can easily be biased toward specific individuals.  The orchestra’s recent trombone audition provides a good example for documentation.[6]


One of the Philharmonic’s solo trombonists, Ian Bousfield, had agreed to adjudicate audition CDs for a trombone competition hosted by the International Trombone Association.  He liked the playing of one of the trombonists, Jeremy Wilson, who was a student at the University of North Texas .  (The CDs were labeled only with numbers and the competitors were supposed to remain anonymous, but the organizer of the competition is a professor at the University of North Texas and was one of Mr. Wilson’s teachers.  The professor gave Mr. Bousfield the candidate’s name and contact information.)


Mr. Bousfield asked Mr. Wilson to audition for the second trombone position that was open in the orchestra.  And most importantly, he asked Mr. Wilson to come to Vienna a week early so that he could work with him.  Mr. Bousfield also asked the orchestra’s bass trombonist, Hans Stroecker, to work with Mr. Wilson as well.  Mr. Wilson was thus given inside information about what the audition committee was looking for.  And for a week before the audition, he was given special coaching by two jury members on how to win it. 


Mr. Bousfield and Mr. Stroecker also arranged for Mr. Wilson to be excused from the preliminary round of the audition.  As Mr. Bousfield explained, “We didn’t want to risk the possibility of losing him in the ‘cattle call’ preliminary.”[7]  Mr. Wilson was not only coached by two of the principal judges on how to win the audition, he was also allowed to skip a round after one of the most important jurors openly stated that he didn’t want him to lose. 


The preferential treatment given to Mr. Wilson by two members of the trombone section is especially problematic, because in the Vienna Philharmonic (and most all orchestras,) the audition juries often defer to the evaluations and expertise of the jury members who play the instrument under consideration.  For the sake of fairness, if one candidate is given special coaching by members of the jury in the week before the audition, the other candidates should be offered the same advantage.  In this case, preferential treatment that biases auditions was given to a man competing against other men, but it is also used by the Vienna Philharmonic to tilt the playing field against women and racial minorities auditioning for the orchestra.


As with many issues involving the Vienna Philharmonic, the circumstances surrounding this trombone audition are complex and difficult to simply categorize.  The favored treatment of one candidate represents serious ethical problems, but by favoring a foreigner, Mr. Bousfield and Mr. Stroecker stepped outside the narrow ethnocentricity that has damaged the reputation of the orchestra.  Since the Second World War, the low brass section (trombones and tubas) has employed a higher ratio of foreigners than any other group in the Vienna Philharmonic.  The principle reason is that the low brass traditions in Vienna are weak, in part because the trombone and tuba have less status than many other instruments due to their strong association with Austrian folk music. 


The relatively cosmopolitan perspectives of Mr. Bousfield and Mr. Stroecker also explain why they were largely responsible for the Vienna State Opera Orchestra hiring its first Asian member, the tubist Yasuhito Sugiyama.[8]  His employment contributed to acrimonious divisions within the low brass section that remain to this day.  Not surprisingly, Mr. Sugiyama did not pass his trial year in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra.  After leaving, he quickly won an audition for the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, which indicates that quality was probably not central to his departure from Vienna .


Genteel Discretion and Moral Myopia


The School of Music at the University of North Texas was delighted that one of their students won an audition for a major orchestra.  The activities that biased the Vienna Philharmonic’s trombone audition are described in detail on the School of Music’s website.[9]  This candid description exists, because the school is clearly oblivious to the ethical problems revealed by the audition and the events surrounding it.  Elation at victory has blinded the faculty to its unethical means.  And most importantly, it blinds the school to the implications those practices have for the continuance of gender and racial discrimination. 


Among institutions of higher learning, the School of Music at the University of North Texas is hardly alone in its moral myopia.  The University of California Berkeley hosted a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic in February 2011 that was especially ironic.  The orchestra’s racial discrimination is specifically directed toward Asians, and yet Asians comprise over 40% of the UC Berkeley student body.[10]  Fifty-five percent of America’s Asian population lives in California, and they represent 12.5% of the state’s residents.[11]   Throughout the 10-campus UC system, Asian Americans comprise 36 percent of the overall undergraduate student body.[12]  These ironies reveal how uninformed people are about the Vienna Philharmonic’s employment practices -- and in some cases how casually indifferent.


Fortunately, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article by Joshua Kosman that criticized the orchestra’s chauvinism entitled “Vienna Philharmonic Must Answer for Exclusion.”[13]  Mr. Kosman examined the orchestra’s racial policies, even though the topic is still relatively taboo in the mainstream media.  He described the Philharmonic’s long tradition of stylistic homogeneity, and explains that the orchestra has traditionally correlated this with gender and racial uniformity.  He also mentions that the orchestra’s racism has been even more resistant to change than its sexism.  He then comments on the ease with which the orchestra’s American agents, presenters, and fans have accepted its practices for decades:


“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.  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.”


To explain the “easy complacency” with which Americans accept the Philharmonic’s racism and sexism, Mr. Kosman considered the seemingly inexplicable immunity classical music seems to have against ethical and moral considerations:

“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.”

Mr. Kosman goes on to suggest that this moral complacency is harmful to classical music, because it creates a social exemption that reduces art’s capacity for human engagement:

“There is something unsettling and sad about this sort of glib aestheticism - the view that anything can be justified in the name of art - because the truth is precisely the opposite. To exempt music, and art in general, from moral considerations is not to protect it at all, but to marginalize it and rob it of any ability to engage on a human level.”


To add even more color to the ironies of the situation, after Mr. Kosman’s article appeared, the Vienna Philharmonic was quickly embraced by the New Century Foundation -- a large, well-known, white separatist organization.[14]  The New Century Foundation printed excerpts from Mr. Kosman’s article on the website of their magazine, American Renaissance, where a large number of readers voiced their support for the Vienna Philharmonic’s employment practices – and often in racist terms.[15]  There were also vehement denunciations of Mr. Kosman’s person.  (The magazine has removed the comments, but I can provide a copy of them to those interested.  Two representative examples are included in endnote 15.)


During the same tour, the University of California Santa Barbara also hosted a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic.  Three members of the orchestra were invited to give master classes in the music department: Thomas Jöbstl, horn; Mathias Schorn, clarinet; and Wolfgang Schulz, flute.  Each master class lasted two hours, and they followed one another thus covering a six hour period.[16]  Here too the ironies remain, since UCSB’s student population is 17% Asian -- nearly 1 in 6 people.[17]  And yet no effort was made at UCSB to engage with the orchestra concerning its racial policies.


The social and psychological mechanisms that create these complex ironies in classical music remain almost completely undefined and unexamined. It is probable that most of the faculty members in the UCSB music department are strongly liberal, and that all of them abhor racism and anti-Asian attitudes.  And yet the genteel discretion of the classical music world described by Mr. Kosman and others[18] makes it acceptable for the department’s cultured, white faculty to invite and celebrate members of an orchestra widely known for its sexist and racist employment practices. (See here and here.) 


In September 2010, the Vienna Philharmonic also performed at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky – an institution so old its name is still given a British spelling.  Centre President, John Roush, explained why a small college went to the great expense of inviting the orchestra[19]:


 “When you give a student an opportunity to be around greatness then they can imagine that they too might be able to do great things. The most important impact is that our people from Centre College believe that anything is possible.”


Here too, ironies abound.  One might add that when you give students the “opportunity” to be around egregious sexism and racism, they too might think that is something to emulate. And he seems to be telling the students that “anything is possible,” except treating women and minorities equally. 


Maintaining An “Authentic” Image

Even though the Vienna Philharmonic now employs six women, it still values its homogenous, all-male appearance. Last year the orchestra hired a fashion designer to create new day time concert attire for its women members that looks similar to the tuxedos worn by the men.[20] (See the photo at the right.) During the many years harpist Anne Lelkes worked with the orchestra, she was also often required to wear a gown with a white V shape in the front like the dress shirt of a tuxedo. And as if that were not sufficient, television broadcasters were only allowed to show Ms. Lelkes’ hands and not her full body. As seen in the photo, the Philharmonic continues these practices. A comfortable and functional uni-sex design might be more welcomed if it did not seem specifically designed to ameliorate negative concerns about the presence of women.

The orchestra’s official photograph on its website also hides the identity of women and still gives the orchestra the appearance of an all-male ensemble.[21]




We thus see that even small changes have been slow and difficult for the Vienna Philharmonic. The most progress has come when the orchestra is under pressure from activists, politicians, and the press. When these vicissitudes ease, movement comes to a standstill. One can also observe that the sexism and racism of the Vienna Philharmonic is overlooked with “easy complacency” by its agents, funders, presenters, and public. It is also clear that the political establishment in Austria is only sporadically engaged with the Philharmonic’s chauvinism, and generally makes significant efforts to remedy the situation only when the orchestra is facing international scrutiny. And we see that the cultured, white, intellectuals of American musical academia all too often embody a genteel, moral myopia that not only allows them to ignore egregious sexism and racism in classical music, but even join in celebrating its worst proponents. With six women now in the Vienna Philharmonic, victory has clearly fallen into the hands of women, but work against tokenism and indifference will need to continue.



January 9, 2011.  I've seen reports that the Vienna State Opera Orchestra has hired a second woman harpist, Anneleen Lenaerts, who began work at the beginning of this season.  Her name is still not listed on the orchestra's website, so I'm awaiting further confirmation and will post the results here.  This does not significantly change the situation I describe above.  She will have to complete a three year tenure before she can apply for membership in the Philharmonic.  She will thus not enter the orchestra until late 2014 at the earliest, and most likely in early 2015.  From 1997 to 2006, only one woman entered the Philharmonic, harpist Charlotte Balzereit.  It is thus notable that after a three year pause in hiring women (2008-2011,) the State Opera Orchestra once again broke the drought by engaging another woman harpist.  This situation exists because male harpists are very rare.


January 9, 2011.   Last summer, women members of the conservative ÖVP joined the Greens and the Socialist Party in criticizing the orchestra's employment practices.  The only party that now completely supports the Philharmonic is the far right Freedom Party.  In July 2011, the government voted to take 2.29 million Euros in government funding away the Philharmonic and give it to the State Opera Orchestra.  Since they are the same group, minus members who have not yet been tenured into the Philharmonic, the gesture is largely symbolic, but demonstrates that the government is losing patience with the slow pace of change.  




[1]  William Osborne, “Tokenism and Firings: the status of women and people of color in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Vienna Philharmonic ten years after it nominally ended its discriminatory policies.  The report can be read at:   http://www.osborne-conant.org/ten-years.htm   http://www.osborne-conant.org/ten-years.htm

[2]  For information about the orchestra’s personnel see the website of the Vienna Philharmonic at: http://www.wienerphilharmoniker.at/index.php?set_language=en&cccpage=musicians

See also the website of the Vienna State Opera at:



[3]  “The Representation of Women in European and American Orchestras: Update 2009” at:  http://www.osborne-conant.org/orch2009.htm

[4]  For information about the orchestra’s personnel see the website of the Vienna Philharmonic at: http://www.wienerphilharmoniker.at/index.php?set_language=en&cccpage=musicians

See also the website of the Vienna State Opera at:



[5]  “The Representation of Women in European and American Orchestras: Update 2009” at:  http://www.osborne-conant.org/orch2009.htm

[6]  For a description of the audition and the events surrounding it see the website of the School of Music at the University of North Texas :

http://music.unt.edu/trombones/node/26  (If the site has been removed, please contact me for a copy.)

[7]  ibid.

[8]  William Osborne, “Why Did the Vienna Philharmonic Fire Yasuhito Sugiyama.” The report can be read at:  http://www.osborne-conant.org/sugiyama.htm 

[9]  For a description of the audition and the events surrounding it see:

http://music.unt.edu/trombones/node/26  (If the site is removed, please contact William Osborne for a copy.)

[10]  Ryan Kim, „Asian Americans Rally, Protest at UC Davis,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 18, 2001.  The article can be read here:  http://articles.sfgate.com/2001-02-18/news/17585447_1_asian-american-students-


[11]  See:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_California

[12]  Ryan Kim, „Asian Americans Rally, Protest at UC Davis,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 18, 2001.  The article can be read here:  http://articles.sfgate.com/2001-02-18/news/17585447_1_asian-american-students-


[13]  Joshua Kosman, “ Vienna Philharmonic Must Answer for Its Exclusion,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 20, 2011.  See the article at:



[14]  See the website of the New Century Foundation here:


And the Wiki article about the organization here:


[15]  Excerpts from Mr. Kosman’s article were published on the website of American Renaissance here:


The reader comments haven since been removed.  Please contact William Osborne for a copy of the first 57.  Below in italics are verbatum copies of two of the comments to provide a general idea of what many of them were like:

“I had the good fortune of attending a VPO performance in Vienna almost 30 yrs ago. It was a sublime experience. There was a unity between orchestra & audience, a shared feeling going back & forth, that I have never felt with any other symphony. I suppose you could call it the “race soul” of the West in action. Kosman understands this. He hates it. He knows, for his world view to prevail, it must be destroyed. Every last expression, every last bastion, of the true spirit of Western Man must be exterminated. Perhaps we will be sending in the Marines one of these days, to make sure the correct gender & race quotas are imposed & and American morality reigns supreme in Vienna.”

And the second one:

“I find it ironic that this article is in San Francisco ’s mainline paper. The radio talk host born Michael Alan Weiner has said over the air several times about how SF’s symphony orchestra is a shell of its former self, mainly because of affirmative action. Before AA, you auditioned for the SFSO behind a curtain, so that those impressed with the power to judge and make hiring recommendations couldn’t see the person playing the instrument, only hear their music. Which is the good color blind race neutral thing to do, right? Wrong. All the new hires were still almost entirely white and overwhelmingly men. So they started pandering and hiring less qualified non-whites, and as Dr. Weiner says, the SFSO “barely sounds better than a high school band.”

[16]  For more details see the website of the Music Department at the University of California Santa Barbara : https://artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu/Details.aspx?PerfNum=1867

[17] Demographic information about UCSB can be found here: http://www.stateuniversity.com/universities/CA/University_of_


[18]  Charlotte Higgins, “Open house: Britain 's concert halls and opera houses are open to everyone. You just have to be white and middle-class.” The Guardian (November 13, 2003.)  The article can be read here:


See also: Francesca Jackes, “All White On the Night: Why Does the World-Famous Vienna Philharmonic Feature So Few Women and Ethnic Minorities?”  The Indedpendent (March 4, 2011.)  The article can be read here:




[19]  Marcia Adair, “Gustavo Dudamel and the Vienna Philharmonic go to a small Kentucky town.  But why?,”  Los Angeles Times (September 24, 2010.)  The article can be read here:  http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2010/09/gustavo-dudamel-and-


[20]  Veronika Oleksyn, “Ladies of the Vienna Philharmonic get a new look,” Sign On San Diego (December 15, 2010.)  See: http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/dec/15/ladies-of-the-vienna-


[21]  See the website of the Vienna Philharmonic at:







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