Vienna Faces the Music: Do Men Play Better?

Is one of the last bastions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire about to crumble under siege from a group of energized American women on the Internet?

For months, reports have been circulating that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO) may finally go co-ed, admitting women as full-fledged members for the first time in its 155-year history. The discussion is to be taken up again today.

Vienna is to classical music what Saudi Arabia is to oil. And, not surprisingly, the VPO is widely regarded as one of the world's finest orchestras. The orchestra's international success, however, subjects it to examination through other cultural lenses.

The International Alliance for Women in Music, which has been lobbying, largely over the Internet, for change in Vienna, has pronounced itself "dismayed" by the orchestra's failure so far to vote "yes" to admit women.

A statement from IAWM, based at George Washington University in Washington, blasted what it called the VPO's "utter contempt and blatant disregard for basic principles of equality." But for advocates of the status quo, it's as if National Football League teams were being pressured to admit women.

A man's view of music

Equality is not the main event here, the men of the VPO assert. "There is one common fight in the field, a battle cry, so to speak, and that is artistic quality," Helmut Zehetner, a second violinist in the VPO, said in a radio program last year.

He went on to say, "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." For advocates of gender equality, such remarks are, not surprisingly, a bit off key.

Austria, however, for all its sophistication and affluence, is still a conservative, hierarchical society. It's been less than 80 years since an emperor reigned supreme. Here if you don't know someone's title, you can hardly go wrong asking - with a straight face - for "Herr Doktor Professor." Views like violinist Zehetner's are not only held but voiced with no apologies for political incorrectness.

The orchestra is scheduled to visit the United States next month, performing in Costa Mesa, Calif., March 4 and 5 and in New York March 7, 8, and 9. The IAWM plans to be there, demonstrating and leafleting outside the concert halls.

Sandy Robertson, director of communications for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, under whose auspices the VPO will perform in Costa Mesa, says she is aware of the planned demonstrations but adds, "We don't have a sense of how many people this is really going to be."

In Vienna, the VPO's resistance to change is not universally applauded. In fact, Peter Wittmann, the new secretary of state responsible for cultural affairs, recently blasted the all-male status of the 155-year-old VPO as "an anachronism."

But Mr. Wittmann's spokesman, Michael Gerbavsets, argues that the VPO is a private club to which equal-opportunity employment standards cannot be applied.

Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

The VPO is a private organization, but many of its members also play in the Vienna State Opera orchestra, which the government subsidizes. Thus individual musicians have the job security of civil servants and the independence of free-lancers - not exactly a recipe for social change.

The orchestra's patriarchal attitude does not strike a chord throughout Europe, however. Eva Krist, a violinist with the Radio Philharmonie orchestra in Hannover, Germany, says she has had "absolutely no problem at all" as a woman in the music world.

Women comprise about 20 percent of all German orchestras, according to the German Orchestra Association in Hamburg.

In the Netherlands, however, gender ratios are even more balanced than in Germany, says Ms. Krist.

Catharina Meints, a cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra, estimates that the proportion of women in major American orchestras is about 10 to 25 percent, with even higher proportions in smaller orchestras.

A sour note in Europe

Whatever the near-term prospects for change in Vienna, the issue is clearly one that has had a certain resonance with the larger public.

All it took was a request for the VPO's telephone number recently to elicit this response from a directory-assistance operator in Dsseldorf: "The Vienna Philharmonic? Have they started accepting women yet?" Told of the scheduled vote, she responded, "Well, it's about time! All these male domains - they've got to go!"

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