The Naked Nexus of Music and Politics

(An analysis of WNYC's program about the 

Vienna Philharmonic broadcast on March 11, 2005)



March 14, 2005

by William Osborne


On March 11, 2005, New York City's NPR affiliate, WNYC, presented a 25 minute segment about the Vienna Philharmonic as part of its program "Sound Check" -- a weekday afternoon talk show about music and culture hosted by John Schaefer.

According to the producer, Brian Wise, the topics of discussion were to include, “the Vienna Philharmonic's employment practices, what progress has and hasn't been made in hiring women, the orchestra's unique sound, and whether it would be affected by women members.”  The participants were to be William Osborne and Abbie Conant,  as well as James Oestreich (the New York Times critic who has often served as an apologist for the orchestra), and members of the Vienna Philharmonic. 

The Philharmonic later stipulated that they would speak only alone in a separate segment.  A short time later they withdrew completely, as did James Oestreich.  Mark Swed, a music critic for the Los Angeles Times, was obtained as a replacement for Oestreich.  Swed was given a separate segment.  



Our Interview


The host, John Schaefer, served as the devil's advocate for the discussion, but he also seemed to be a fan of the Vienna Philharmonic.  He vigorously defended the orchestra.  He also co-moderated a broadcast of the Philharmonic's concert that evening in Carnegie Hall, along with Fred Child, host of NPR's "Performance Today."   Schaefer's general position was that the Vienna Philharmonic can change only slowly, because it must preserve its musical traditions.


He began the program by explaining that the orchestra had declined an invitation to participate.  We then discussed the most recent statistics for women in the ensemble.  Since 1997, the Vienna State Opera has held auditions for 35 positions and has hired 5 women.  The last two are tutti violinists who were auditioned only about two weeks ago.  For the last eight years the m/f  hiring ratio has been about 10 to 1.  With the two new women it rises to about 7 to 1.   Eight years after the Vienna State Opera agreed to admit women, they thus have 5 of the orchestra's 149 positions.  Only one of these women has been made a member of the Vienna Philharmonic.


To illustrate that the Vienna State Opera/Vienna Philharmonic is still discriminating, we mentioned comparative statistics for similar orchestras in the German-speaking world, such as in Zurich and Leipzig.  Zurich is an especially useful example, because it is a very similar, state-owned opera house in a small German-speaking country.  During the period that Vienna hired its first 3 women, Zurich hired 20.  Two thirds of the new positions in Zurich have been filled by women, but only one tenth of the new positions in Vienna.[1]  


About one third of the Vienna State Opera's members still oppose admitting women.  This creates an atmosphere of intimidation and resentment that discourages women from applying. As an illustration of this problem, the Austrian magazine profil recently quoted a Philharmonic string player:  “Three women are already too many.  By the time we have twenty percent, the orchestra will be ruined.  We have made a big mistake, and will bitterly regret it.” [2]


Schaefer said the contracts in Zurich and Leipzig are different and that this accounts for the different ratios of employment.  We pointed out that the contracts for orchestras are virtually identical throughout the German-speaking world -- a trial year and then a lifetime appointment.  When Schaefer continued insisting that the orchestra wasn't particularly doing anything wrong or unusual, I mentioned the 10 to 1 (or more recently 7 to 1) employment ratios and asked, "What are we supposed to think, that women are just inferior?"


Abbie and I explained our view that if the Vienna Philharmonic used blind auditions in all rounds this would eliminate most possibilities for prejudice. (In blind auditions, the candidates play behind a screen to hide their physical appearance.) We noted that even some of the orchestra’s apologists, such as James Oestreich, have said it should use completely blind auditions.[3]  Schaefer countered that the Philharmonic’s discrimination is no different from other orchestras -- even in the States.  He suggested American orchestras discriminate against blacks and Latinos. 


Aside from seeming specious, Schaefer's argument is problematic.  The lack of Latinos and blacks in American orchestras is indeed acute, but stems mostly from extremely serious societal and cultural barriers, not specific acts of discrimination.  According to U.S. law, orchestras caught discriminating can be sued for millions and forced to integrate.  The penalties in Austria, however, are minimal (one to two months salary for the lost job) and excluded persons or groups still do not have to be employed.  This is why the Vienna State Opera orchestra's exclusion of women has been ignored for decades, even though it is owned and operated by the government.  And worse, according to European law, the Vienna Philharmonic, in its nominally private formation, is not even subject to laws against discrimination. 


We were, nevertheless, happy to discuss the lack of minorities in American classical music.  We mentioned that black musicians represent only about 2 percent of the membership in American orchestras.  We discussed the irony that we often attend classical concerts where almost everyone is white, and then return to our neighborhood in upper Manhattan where almost everyone is black.  The social dichotomies divide along racial lines that are extreme and unjustifiable.  [Our normal residence is in Germany, but we have been in New York for a few months on sabbatical.]


Schaefer asked why we were concerned about the Vienna Philharmonic not hiring women.  Aside from sexism being a self-evident problem in itself, we pointed out that the Vienna Philharmonic needs women to maintain its standards.  We noted that even the Philharmonic complains it's having trouble finding qualified members trained in Austrian traditions.  The country has 16 full-time orchestras for a population of only 8 million.[4]  This already small talent pool is reduced by half through sexism.  In addition, the majority of the string graduates from Austria's music schools are women.[5]  Without them, there are simply not enough good candidates. 


We noted that since the Vienna Philharmonic overlooks Austrian women, it has to turn to foreign men.  We discussed the current turmoil in the low brass section.  They have hired an English first trombonist who refuses to play a German trombone. 


[The sound of the German trombone is different.  We feel this new trombonist is wrong not to use a German trombone in the Vienna Philharmonic.  He should be honored to accept the orchestra’s musical traditions and instrumentation.]


Schaefer broke to read a statement from the Vienna Philharmonic that their PR agent had given WNYC.  It didn't contain anything especially newsworthy other than the latest stats for the number of women in the State Opera Orchestra. They claim that one quarter of the orchestra will be retiring within the next few years.  At the current rates, however, that still does not mean many women will enter the orchestra when these positions are refilled.


Schaefer asked if the Philharmonic should hire women even if they were not the most qualified, in order to integrate them into the orchestra.  He asked if they should, for example, hire a black Latina, even if a white man had won first place.  I think he meant to keep things hypothetical, but somehow there seemed to be a slight tone of resentment and irritation in his question.  Abbie felt offended by the question.  She asked why we should assume women and minorities would be "second rate."   To take the heat off of him, and keep the conversation going, I said the best candidate should always be accepted.  I reminded him that the majority of the graduates of Austria’s conservatories are women, especially among the strings, but that men have been about ten times more likely to get jobs in the Philharmonic.  I asked if he thought that was a problem.  Some music softly emerged and the interview ended.  We were ushered out of the studio.


This sounds confrontational when briefly described in written words, but there was actually a fairly relaxed flow to the discussion.  For one thing, Abbie and I both had the flu.



The Interview of Mark Swed


The second half of the segment was a telephone interview with Mark Swed, music critic for the Los Angeles TimesBefore the show began, the producer, Brian Wise, explained that they couldn't coordinate live and telephone discussions, and that Swed would be interviewed in a separate segment after us.  This was actually not true. While waiting for the show to begin, we listened to the program that was currently being broadcast.  It involved people in the studio and a woman on the phone from out of state.


Since we were not allowed to participate, we listened to Swed's interview from a speaker in the ceiling of a nearby hallway.  Ironically, much of what he said seems to have been taken from our website, except that he got a good bit of the information wrong.


He said women are not applying for the orchestra because they did not want to be "pioneers" -- though he did not really explain what that would entail.  They would face an intimidating and hostile atmosphere from many members of the orchestra that is in itself a form of sexism.  He also neglected to mention that the 10 to 1 employment ratio has discouraged women from applying.   Two weeks ago it rose to 7 to 1, but that is still hardly encouraging.


Swed said the Vienna Philharmonic is not a “monolith” and that many of the younger men in the orchestra support women.  He did not mention that about one third of the orchestra still opposes women [6], and that this makes it difficult for them to win auditions.  The differences between the candidates at that level are often razor thin.  With one third of the orchestra against women, the scales are easily tilted.  Due to the prejudice, reasoned judgments about the subtle differences between players are hindered.    


Swed cited the Berlin Philharmonic as an exemplar of positive change, noting that it has filled its ranks with many women.  In reality, women represent a12 percent of the Berlin Philharmonic 24 years after they were first admitted.  Some members of the Berlin Philharmonic still express views strikingly similar to those found in Vienna.  In an interview with Swedish National Radio, broadcast on March 10, 2003, the first cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic, Georg Faust, spoke about its all-male cello section, which regularly performs as an independent ensemble.  He said they are like a pop music "boy group":

“Of course - we are all human beings. If you are a group of twelve men, and one woman comes in, I am absolutely sure it will change the whole situation. It will change the image because part of our success is that we are 12 men. We can easily see this when we go to Japan. We are like a boy group. […] Yes. Back Street violoncellists. Boy group.  Because the audience is 90 % women. So this shows that this kind of energy we produce as 12 men - as 12 cellists - and 12 men, is something very strong, is very homogenous and very unique in a way.” 

To further explain this male unity, he relates it to sports, and then adds a strange allusion: 

[We’re] like a football team: The same instruments, it's 12 players of the same instrument. It's always a feeling of competition. Always a certain kind of pressure.  Because everybody knows the other person very, very well. He knows what he can do and what he can't do. They are like 12 dogs. They all need their certain room and they all have their ‘revier’.” 

Questions of "revier" aside, Berlin illustrates how sexist attitudes can remain in an orchestra for decades, even after it begins admitting women.  It has been 24 years, and they still speak of the cello section as a "boy group" that delights a female public.  Similar patterns will likely be followed in Vienna and make the integration of women a long and difficult process.


Swed commented that the Vienna Philharmonic is now much more international and even has players from Japan.   The Philharmonic has traditionally excluded people of color, because they feel that such individuals would destroy the ensemble’s image of Austrian authenticity.[7]  This policy is especially directed toward Asians.[8]   In reality, the Vienna Philharmonic hired their first person of color in 2003, the Japanese tubist, Yasuto Sugiyama.[9]  Swed did not mention (and probably didn't know) that Sugiyama’s contract is being terminated at the end of this season.  The Vienna Philharmonic will once again be the only all-white major orchestra in the world.


The host, John Schaefer, falsely claimed that the Vienna Philharmonic has used a lot of women conductors -- a repeat of misleading information by Anne Midgette in a recent article in the New York Times.[10]   Swed, who wasn't completely sure of the facts, said he thought that only the orchestra’s opera formation had used women conductors.  He was correct, but not certain, so Schaefer's false information was left hanging in the air.  


(The administration of the Vienna State Opera chooses its conductors and two women have been engaged, one of them a few times.  In its Philharmonic formation, the orchestra chooses its own conductors.  They have never used a woman  -- nor have they have ever played a composition by a woman.) [Ed. update: Simone Young conducted the orchestra later that year, in 2006.]


Swed said the State Opera Orchestra has close to 200 members, which is false.  It has 149.[11]  Swed said the Philharmonic is a smaller subset of the opera orchestra.  This is false. All members of the opera orchestra become members of the Philharmonic after a three year tenure.  A vote is held, but until women entered the orchestra, it was generally considered just a formality.[12]  


They discussed the Vienna Philharmonic's sound and instrumentation, but unfortunately Swed could not say very much since he is not very well informed on that subject either.  Abbie's job as a professor in Germany is to train German and Austrian musicians.  We could have contributed a lot to this part of the discussion...but we were in the hallway.  [For detailed information on our website about German and Viennese instruments click here.] 


At the end, Swed added that Vienna is a more progressive city than New York.  Even Schaefer seemed a little incredulous.





If we had been included in the second half of the program, it would have obviously been more accurate and balanced. We could have also added interesting and helpful information about the orchestra's unique sound, phrasing, and instrumentation.   People were left with misinformation, and a false impression about the Vienna Philharmonic’s willingness to admit women.  John Schaefer was responsible.


A program that genuinely examined the Vienna Philharmonic's on-going chauvinistic attitudes, and the way they are discretely supported by the American musical establishment, would not fit within the conservative, bourgeois norms of classical music and WNYC's style of consensus journalism.  It would also be a deep embarrassment and threat to classical music's corporate structures as represented by institutions such as Carnegie Hall and Columbia Artists Management International.  Under these circumstances, WNYC had to be cautious.


Bill Marimow is managing editor for national news at NPR.  He has commented on the problem of balanced reporting:

"On a subject of controversy, I've always believed that we should examine and dissect what I call the 'two poles of the possible truth,' meaning the positions taken by both staunch advocates and ardent opponents. That does call for interviews with partisan people or groups. But equally important, reporters should strive to find unquestioned experts on the subject, who are well known as impartial and apolitical sources of expertise."[13]

It seems that Swed was the best impartial expert WNYC could find on short notice.  The originally planned guest, James Oestreich, music critic for the New York Times, would not have been impartial at all. He is an apologist for the orchestra, and that might have something to do with why he withdrew.  Unfortunately, Swed was not well-informed about the Vienna Philharmonic.  In an attempt to play the role of an impartial expert, he assisted those who attempt to rationalize the Vienna Philharmonic's questionable employment practices.


Before WNYC's broadcast of the Vienna Philharmonic's Carnegie Hall concert, composer Peter Garland presented an hour long program of historic Philharmonic recordings, which he described as, "Superior music by a superior orchestra."  This description is a curious formulation, since the Vienna Philharmonic has traditionally held that gender and racial uniformity give it aesthetic superiority.  The orchestra currently has only 1 women out of 136 positions, and its only full person of color has recently had his contract terminated.  Even a Downtown composer such as Garland, who by definition would normally be thought of as radically independent and progressive, must accommodate himself to practices such as the Vienna Philharmonic's in order to work as a journalist in the classical music establishment.[14]


The program with the interviews of Abbie Conant, Mark Swed, and myself is available as a streaming sound file in WNYC’s archives.


I feel it illustrates the misinformation, mentalities, and discriminatory methods women in music still confront.   Were there subtle manipulations of the truth?  Did Schaefer have an agenda and did Swed play along?  Or was it all just "good journalism?"  Listen to the program and decide for yourself.  I am reluctant to insist, since I was an interested party directly involved.





[1]  Peter Schneeberger, "Die Zwei-Prozent-Gesellschaft" profil (February 24, 2003).  Several of Swed's argruments seemed to have been derived from this article, which is on our website.

[2] ibid.

[3]  James R. Oestreich, "Vienna Philharmonic: Keeping That Sound (and Everything Else) as Is", New York Times (September 26, 1999.)  He writes, "Maybe the fresh winds now blowing through these venerable precincts will knock down a wall or two. Then again, it might be simpler and more effective just to put one up: the same camouflaging screen for the final round of auditions that is used for the earlier rounds. And may the best 'man' win."  

[4] Elena Ostleitner, Liebe, Lust, Last und Lied (Wien, Bundesministerium fuer Unterricht und Kunst, 1995)  In the interview, I mistakenly gave the population of Austria at 11 million.  That is incorrect, the population is only 8.14 million.

[5]  Elena Ostleitner, Liebe, Lust, Last und Lied (Wien, Bundesministerium fuer Unterricht und Kunst, 1995).  

[6]  Peter Schneeberger, "Die Zwei-Prozent-Gesellschaft" profil (February 24, 2003).  

[7] Roland Girtler, "Mitgliedsaufnahme in den Noblen Bund der Wiener Philharmoniker Als Mannbarkeitsritual", Sociologia Internationalis, Beiheft 1 (1992).

[8] ibid.

[9]  "Tubaist is first Japanese to make Vienna Philharmonic",  Mainichi Daily News (June 25, 2003).
[10]  Anne Midgette, "Women Onstage and in the Pit at a Venerable Opera House", New York Times (January 25, 2005.)  This article creates a false impression of progress.  Ms. Midgette reported that there were six women in the pit for a Wagner opera, even though I had warned her that substitutes were common in the orchestras for Wagner.  (The sections are expanded and unusual instruments are used so extra players are required.)  I gave her sources to consult to confirm the actual membership of women.  As it turns out, at least half of the women were subs, not regular members of the orchestra, but she did not explain this in her article.  Ms. Midgette also did not explain that the administration of the Vienna State Opera chooses its conductors, not the orchestra.  In its Vienna Philharmonic formation, the orchestra itself chooses its conductors, but has never used a woman.  The misleading impression was compounded by the article's lede, which was probably prepared by the Times' music editor, James Oestreich. 

[11]  Clemens Hellsberg, Demokratie der Koenige: Die Geschichte der Wiener Philharmoniker (Zurich: Schweizer Verlagshaus: Wien: Kremayr & Scheriau; Mainz: Musikverlag Schott, 1992)

[12]  ibid.

[13]  The quote is from an article by the NPR ombusman about good journalistic practices.  It is well worth reading and can be found at:

[14]  In general, American journalism might be in crisis.  Partisan political groups and economic pressures seem to even be affecting NPR, PBS and their affiliates such as WNYC.  Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Laurie Garrett, recently left the for-profit Newsday due to the loss of its quality.  In her letter of resignation, she wrote: "All across America news organizations have been devoured by massive corporations - and allegiance to stockholders, the drive for higher share prices, and push for larger dividend returns trumps everything that the grunts in the newsrooms consider their missions." She went on to write, "This is terrible for democracy. I have been in 47 states of the USA since 9/11, and I can attest to the horrible impact the deterioration of journalism has had on the national psyche. I have found America a place of great and confused fearfulness.  She continues: "It would be easy to descend into despair, not only about the state of journalism, but the future of American democracy. But giving up is not an option. There is too much at stake."