That the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is a sexist and racist organization is old news. It has been a topic for bloggers and classical music enthusiasts, including some who believe that the blatantly racist and sexist policies are justified. The status of women in the VOP has even made national news on MSNBC and is documented on the VPO’s wikipedia page. In fact, Google suggests it as a search result:
The VPO is currently in California to perform in the Bay Area for the first time in 20 years. In preparation for the performance the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story highlighting the persisting injustices in the hiring practices of the ensemble and challenges whether the issues that Abbie Connant first boldly addressed in the 1980s continue to be important.
The answer is yes.
Though the ensemble relented to protests and negative media coverage and first allowed women to become members of the orchestra in 1997, the subsequent fourteen years has seen the addition of four women.
Joshua Kosman, of the San Francisco Chronicle, rightfully challenges the readers to think about the ensemble critically:
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.
Yes, there have been protests, and the occasional voice raised in opposition. Osborne, most notably, together with the International Alliance for Women in Music, has led a long and valiant effort to bring attention to the situation.
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.
Musicologist, composer, and advocate for equality, William Osborne has continually fought for equal representation at the VOP as well as in other organizations and has documented his work here. You will also see that Osborne husband to Abbie Conant, famed trombone player who personally went head-to-head with the Vienna Philharmonic.
That the fight to rid the VPO of its racism and sexism even after so many years and acts of activism is more that disheartening. But there is no question that this problem still needs to be addressed. Osborne’s activism work includes interviews with musicians from the VPO. Dieter Flury, a flautist in the orchestra, was quoted in 1996 as saying:
From the beginning we have spoken of the special Viennese qualities, of the way music is made here. The way we make music here is not only a technical ability, but also something that has a lot to do with the soul. The soul does not let itself be separated from the cultural roots that we have here in central Europe. And it also doesn’t allow itself to be separated from gender. So if one thinks that the world should function by quota regulations, then it is naturally irritating that we are a group of white skinned male musicians, that perform exclusively the music of white skinned male composers. It is a racist and sexist irritation. I believe one must put it that way. If one establishes superficial egalitarianism, one will lose something very significant. Therefore, I am convinced that it is worthwhile to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produced by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards. [My emphasis.]
With the points raised in Kosman’s article, and continually address in Osborne’s work, we should be asking ourselves what more can be done for this situation. I believe complacency is truly endemic and that perhaps complacency itself needs to be addressed as it suggests a far larger problem that what is present in this one organization.