Austria's evolving sound of music Exclusion: The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is seen as stubbornly clinging to its all-male, all-white tradition. Only last week did the orchestra vote to admit women for the first time in its 155-year history.

Sun Journal

March 08, 1997|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

VIENNA, Austria -- The men of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play a music they say is unique. It is a sound of distinctly full brass and velvety strings, with masterfully balanced rests and fortes, a sound shaped by Brahms and Mahler, a sound -- some musicians say -- that only this all-male, all-white orchestra can make.

The claims of some members that the exclusionary policies of the philharmonic give the ensemble its greatness have created a furor -- one quieted but not resolved when the orchestra voted last week to admit women for the first time in its 155-year history.

On the surface, the controversy involves basic issues of discrimination and equal rights. But at its core lie questions about aesthetics and economics and the changing definition of cultural identity.

Many see the Wiener Philharmoniker as symbolic of the way Austrian society stubbornly clings to tradition. Indeed, the former seat of the Hapsburg Empire remains a tightknit, conservative country locked in rigid propriety and strongly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church.

The orchestra's policies sparked a U.S.-led protest. There has, however, been little domestic protest. Numerous Austrians participating in recent radio phone-in programs voiced support for the orchestra's all-male policy, and many of the callers were women.

Change comes to Austria

But Austria is changing, slowly, having joined the European Union, where it is being forced to become more economically efficient and conform its social standards to those in the rest of the West. And immigration during the past decade has created a less homogenous population.

For this new Austria, the orchestra imbroglio is an embarrassment and the musicians who resist change are seen as fuddy-duddy dinosaurs. "The tradition [of a male-dominated artistic world] is so heavily imprinted in this country that I think that is the main factor -- they are afraid of change," says Agnes Grossman, who became the first female director of the 499-year-old Vienna Boys Choir in October.

Grossman had to make her musical name in Canada, not her native Austria, because of the lack of opportunity at home.

"Austria is a land of tradition, and one of its great traditions is this orchestra, with its very specific, wonderful sound," says Grossman, 53. "It happens to be men who have created this tradition, because 100 years ago there would not be women even considering entering the orchestra.

"The misunderstanding is that only men can do it. With the evolution of women becoming excellent musicians, we know that talent does not depend on man or woman. Some people in Austria have not moved with this evolution."

Controversy over the orchestra has been a blow to Austrians whose national identity is wrapped up in Mozart, opera and the sound of music.

After the collapse of the once-proud Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, what was left of Austria became mired in political and economic chaos. Its subsequent collaboration with the Nazi Third Reich and native son Adolf Hitler brought new shame on the country. Austria then found itself situated awkwardly on the backside of Western Europe, the last outpost before the Communist East Bloc and the Balkans.

Its main claim to fame was its contribution to music, culture and the classical arts -- a source of national pride and validation, as well as economic possibility thanks to tourism and worldwide marketing.

"Our cultural identity is the most important identity that we have," says Ioan Holender, manager of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, from which the philharmonic draws its members.

What kind of cultural identity, though -- promoted by the government and permitted by society -- is the question on many women's minds.

Regina Himmelbauer, a music historian who tried to rally the protests from Vienna, says the orchestra's anointed role as international "ambassadors" since the end of World War II has projected a less-than-inclusive image and made the ensemble untouchable, sacrosanct.

"You question them, you are questioning Austrian culture," she says. "It is very difficult to criticize them."

Consequently, the campaign to promote women in the philharmonic remained a quixotic endeavor locally, waged by a few people labeled feminists and "enemies" of the orchestra.

Stereotypes that women do not have the lung power or upper-body strength to play tubas, trumpets and percussion instruments have faded in most concert halls. Blind auditions have shown that it is often impossible to distinguish between male and female virtuose.

With its vote to admit women, the orchestra named harpist Anna Lelkes a full member. She had languished for 26 years in a kind of limbo, playing with the ensemble because of a shortage of male harpists and given equal pay, but never allowed to join. Her name never appeared in concert programs until a 1995 performance in New York.

Change will come to the Vienna Philharmonic slowly, and it will be years before a significant female presence develops.

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