It’s billed as the biggest classical-music concert of the calendar, which starts the New Year with two hours of sweet, innocent waltzes.
And this year especially, the orchestra at the heart of the show is facing persistent and increasing charges of illegal discrimination against women and minorities, along with ugly secrets that keep arising from its distant Nazi past.
The Vienna Philharmonic’s concert is watched on television by as many as 60 million viewers in 81 countries, the totals rising year by year. Rather than being uplifting, for many viewers it’s depressing to note how few women can be seen.
Out of 126 members of the VPO, just six are women. On stage, for most of this week’s concert, only three or four could be counted, with two more coming on for cameos -- one of them a debutante flautist, Karin Bonelli.
The bigger the show, the greater the public scrutiny. The VPO, which owns and plays the event, is one of the world’s signature ensembles, commanding top ticket prices in China, Japan and Carnegie Hall.
Made up of peer-picked players from the Vienna State Opera, the Philharmonic was the last orchestra in the world to admit women, maintaining an all-male membership until as recently as February, 1997. Today, it still has the fewest female musicians of any major classical ensemble.
It has given any number of excuses for practicing discrimination, from claiming that women with babies would not be suitable for long overseas tours, to arguing that they would destabilize its singular sound.
Almost all VPO players are Austrian trained, ensuring a stylistic homogeneity in core symphonic repertory, much of it composed in or around Vienna.
A radical change of personnel might, it is argued, imperil the orchestra’s authority in Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and all the Strausses.
Sex discrimination, however, is against the law. In July 2011, the Austrian government cut VPO funding by 2.29 million euros ($3.03 million) after facing parliamentary objections to its blatant imbalance. Still, nothing changed.
Challenged once more at a news conference last week, the VPO chairman professor Clemens Hellsberg said: ‘In art, you cannot impose quotas.”
At 11 a.m. on the first day of the year, critics automatically scan the Musikvereinsaal stage to see how many women have been permitted to join the main event. In January 2012, there were just two, an apparent act of defiance against public punition.
The VPO operates a similar barrier against ethnic minorities. There are no Asian or non-white members, even though one third of the students at Vienna’s University of Music come from the Far East.
A tuba player from the New Japan Philharmonic, Yasuhito Sugiyama, won an audition to play at the State Opera in 2003, but was refused membership of the Philharmonic. After three years, Sugiyama quit Vienna to join the world-class Cleveland Orchestra.
Merit, in the VPO, has little to do with membership, which often passes from father to son. (VPO spokesmen deny racial exclusion, noting that two present players have a parent of Asian extraction.)
Franz Welser-Most, music director of the State Opera and conductor of the 2013 New Year’s Day concert, voiced a widespread fear when, in a speech, he demanded: “Are we faced with a phenomenon of ‘Asianization,’ much like the ‘Americanization’ of a century ago?”
Xenophobia, the fear of foreigners, is rooted in the Viennese DNA. Foreign, in Vienna, means anyone from beyond the Danube Basin. Rumanians are tolerated in the VPO, Russians not.
Last February, two trombonists resigned. Ian Bousefield, the principal, is British. Jeremy Wilson is American. Although each gave personal reasons for his departure, there was no ignoring the congruity: these were the first players in the VPO from English-speaking countries and the atmosphere in their section was described as “hostile” (two Australian brothers, Benedict and Tobias Lea, play in the strings).
Charges of racial discrimination revive memories of the orchestra’s role under seven years of Nazi rule. As the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s Anschluss approaches in March 2013, Austrian historians have reminded newspaper readers that 25 VPO players were full-blown Nazis before 1938 and almost half the band joined the party soon after.
Fifteen players -- Jewish or politically on the left -- were sent to concentration camps. Seven died. In 1966, 21 years after the Nazi defeat, an unrepentant VPO gave its highest honor to Baldur von Schirach, the Vienna Gauleiter in charge of genocide.
To its credit, the VPO published many of its misdeeds in a 1992 history by its present chairman, titled “Democracy of Kings.” Professor Hellsberg this week promised to provide more Nazi-era information on the orchestra’s website, before the Anschluss anniversary.
He will be pressed to come clean on the closely-guarded origins of the New Year’s Day concert, an event devised in 1939 with Nazi consent. The Reich aimed to reduce Austria to provincial status.
The VPO, fighting to save its international reputation, used Nazi connections to win a vital concession to assert what it did best -- the irresistible 3/ 4 dances of the Strauss dynasty, a step the plodding Berliners could never emulate.
The New Year’s Day concert is rooted in the orchestra’s complicity with Nazism. That historical fact, along with continued discriminatory practices, could not be overlooked this week as Welser-Most waved his baton and show host Julie Andrews beamed from your screens. Her presence served as a strange reminder that almost 50 years have passed since she escaped the Austrian Nazis with the baron and his brood in “The Sound of Music,” a musical Austrians have never much liked.
Next year, the conductor will be Daniel Barenboim, who is Jewish by origin and egalitarian in outlook. There will be tension in the rehearsal room if, by then, the VPO has not come clean on the shady origins of its show and improved its record on sexual and racial equality.
(Norman Lebrecht’s most recent book is “Why Mahler.” He is an occasional contributor to Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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