Published by
WQXR Features

A Traditional Sound, the Old-Fashioned Way?

Email a Friend

Dorothy Kaplan Roffman is a 69-year-old violinist and the founding director of the JCC Thurnauer School of Music in Tenafly, New Jersey. She started playing violin as a child and remembers when her parents took her to hear Erika Morini, an Austrian violinist, when she was five years old. “I never really discussed it with my parents, but I have a feeling that they knew I needed a woman to look up to,” Roffman said. “It was very exciting.”

Attending a performance by a professional woman musician may have been a rarity in 1946, but not today. Many cultural organizations are doing all they can to keep in step with the times, especially in workplace diversity. And whether a matter of affirmative action or simply a search for the best talent, the balance of gender in many American orchestras is moving closer to parity. Of the 97 musicians on the current roster of the New York Philharmonic, 48 are women, as are 35 of the 93 members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Tradition dies harder in Europe. Only 28 of the 104 players in the London Symphony Orchestra are women, and only 17 of 120 in the Berlin Philharmonic. And until recently, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, created in 1842, was by policy male only.

Although no one from the Vienna Phil will state for the record why the ensemble chose to remain male for more than 150 years, a desire to avoid appointing musicians who might take lengthy maternity leaves or play with a “feminine” style are two reasons often cited. “I've spoken with someone from the Vienna Philharmonic who said that there’s something about all men playing together,” said Peter Freisinger, conductor of the Freisinger Chamber Orchestra in Boston, “that they have their own way of doing it.”

In a recent telephone interview, Mary Lou Falcone, a spokesperson for the Vienna Philharmonic, ticked off the factors that the orchestra takes into consideration when selecting new members: “It’s tradition. It’s location. It’s background. It’s where they study. Most of them studied in Vienna and some of them have been handed down music for generations.”

Unlike the larger government-funded Vienna State Opera Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic is a private organization. It prides itself on a style that reflects the intellectual spirit prevalent in Austria at the end of the 18th century. Audience members attending the orchestra’s annual New York shows—they’ve played at Carnegie Hall for the past 20 years—can expect to hear music of the great Middle European composers played with a luminous Vienna sound unchanged by time.

It wasn’t until 12 years ago, when gender equality organizations began to protest the group’s Carnegie Hall shows, that the orchestra decided to change its men-only policy and announced that it would allow women to audition. “Prior to 1997, it was clearly a private men's club. It was a symptom of its time,” said Falcone. “I think they absolutely changed their thinking, not their approach to quality.”

Getting into the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra involves an intense three-step audition. A panel of judges listens to musicians play their instruments behind a screen, in a so-called a blind audition, on two separate occasions. Then, during a final round, the screen is lifted, and musicians show their stuff in full view of the judges. This third open round has always set the Vienna Philharmonic apart; auditions at the New York Philharmonic, for example, have historically been completely blind.

Ever so slowly, women have joined the orchestra, although few have become permanent members. They include violinist Isabelle Ballot, violist Ursula Plaichinger, and harpist Charlotte Balzereit. The other 121 permanent players are men. The Philharmonic cites low turnover as a major reason for the sluggish pace. Musicians enjoy a career-long appointment that ends only at the mandatory retirement age of 65. And despite large numbers of applicants, said Falcone, few musicians can meet the orchestra’s high standards.

But soon, a woman may be sitting in one of the showiest chairs of all. In 2008, the orchestra offered violinist Albena Danailova the position of First Violin and Concert Master. She’ll find out if she gets that job permanently this September, after her three year probationary period ends. If she does, she will share the role of conducting the orchestra with three other concertmasters until she retires. Musicians who don’t survive probation often return to the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, from which the Vienna Philharmonic recruits its members.

Danailova’s appointment to such a prominent position has generated a good deal of comment. “The orchestra doesn't hire women because it wants to,” Wolfgang Zinggl, a member of the national Austrian parliament, said via email from Vienna. “It does so because it would have seriously harmed its reputation had it not succumbed to the massive external pressure—no matter how well the orchestra's female members play.”

The Vienna Phil denies that claim. “The woman who has that position would had to have earned it,” Falcone said. “There is no tokenism. [Spots go to] the best qualified musicians who fit the Vienna Philharmonic and their style of playing in the Viennese tradition.”

But many musicians argue that gender shouldn’t be a factor when orchestras are doing their hiring. “Generally, when musicians meet each other and play music together, apart from whether they like each other as people, they are concerned with one thing. ‘Can he or she play?’” said Michael Reingold, an amateur French horn player and educator at the Thurnauer School. “Nothing else really matters.”

Read more about the Vienna Sound.