Vienna Philharmonic: Facing its Nazi Past But Struggling with Diversity

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Possibly no orchestra has prompted more hand-wringing and ambivalence than the Vienna Philharmonic. The 172-year-old orchestra is recognized the world over for a very specific sound that’s changed little over the decades, and a playing style that has been passed down from generation to generation.

But critics charge that it’s just that exclusive philosophy that may explain why there are few women and virtually no minorities in its ranks. Indeed, 16 years after the Philharmonic became one of the last big European orchestras to admit women, they are still an exotic sight onstage. Despite a blind audition policy, in which candidates are not visible when they play, the orchestra currently has just seven female members out of 130 total (four other women are serving a probationary period, standard for incoming members).

At the same time, the Vienna Philharmonic has shown progress by acknowledging its complicity during the Nazi era. After a team of historians looked into its World War II-era activities, the orchestra in December quietly revoked awards it gave to six Nazi leaders. Some observers wonder if this reckoning with the past may signal a broader policy of reform.

“I think it’s a question of an institution genuinely trying to evolve and how quickly you can evolve,” said James Oestreich, the retired classical music editor of the New York Times, who has been closely covering the orchestra. “I don’t think anyone is taking the position that there is nothing wrong with [its lack of diversity]. Of course there’s a problem.”

But Joshua Kosman, the classical music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, contends that the orchestra is not working hard enough to address its membership issues, in part because the classical music field mostly gives it a pass. “This has been an ongoing issue for a very long time and one that I’ve been surprised not to see any discussion of or any reckoning of it,” said Kosman. "It would be worth it if at least these matters were openly discussed."

In the 1990s, women’s groups, including the National Organization for Women, held protests outside of concert halls when the VPO toured the U.S. and music critics (including Oestreich and Kosman), have periodically challenged the orchestra on its policies.

Many orchestras, of course, besides Vienna have struggled with diversity issues of their own. As Oestreich notes, “you will not find a major American orchestra that has more than one, two or maybe three blacks. This has been going on for years and years and I don’t hear a lot of uproar about that.”

But Kosman says that is a concern rooted in the supply chain: historically, African-Americans haven't been encouraged to pursue careers in classical music as much as whites. “There’s not an analogous supply problem for minorities in European orchestras," he notes, "particularly for Asian musicians, as you can tell by comparing the roster of the Vienna Phil with any other comparable European orchestra."

Joel Bell, chairman of the Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, believes that change is a priority but it won’t happen overnight. “I find a struggling with the balance of speed of change to achieve what we would like to see as an end result, but without jeopardizing tradition and quality in the process,” he said. Bell believes the VPO should be judged not by the total number of women and minorities in the ensemble but by the percentage of women added since it opened its membership in 1997.

On Twitter, New York Magazine critic Justin Davidson observed in December that the VPO is “dodging the present by correcting the past” – comparing the Nazi-era revelations with the alleged lack of interest in diversification. Kosman hopes that the Philharmonic will take a harder look at itself. “I’m greatly hopeful that one self-examination is connected with many," he said. "One can only hope."

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