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Vienna PhilharmonicLike many professions, for centuries music was dominated by men. For about the last three decades, though, orchestras have taken measures to ensure equal consideration for women and minority musicians. In most cases, for example, prospective players now try out behind screens that hide them from the judges.

By 2005, the change was significant — female membership of international orchestras (outside of Germany and Austria) had increased considerably. It varied from about 26% at the Philadelphia Orchestra to 41% at the New York Philharmonic and 43% at the French National Orchestra.

Three women are already too many … By the time we have 20 percent, the orchestra will be ruined.”

       – Vienna Philharmonic musician, quoted in a 2003 issue of Profil

The orchestras of Germany and Austria have generally lagged behind the others, and the Vienna Philharmonic remains at the very bottom of the list. Effectively a musicians’ democracy, it has been deeply reluctant to admit women to its ranks.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the Vienna Philharmonic officially ended their policy discriminating against women players. For years after that, however, their only female member was a harpist. Television producers were allowed to show only her hands. Her name was not listed in programs.

Fully 10 years later, in May 2007, the Vienna Philharmonic finally granted full membership to violist Ursula Plaichinger. Plaichinger had been hired in 2001, in spite of an audition in which the screens came down for the final round (the Vienna Philharmonic reportedly believes it is "important to see what musicians look like while they play").

Cellist Ursula Wex, hired in 2003, and violinist Isabelle Ballot, brought on board this year, now play in Vienna Philharmonic concerts. However, both are still listed on the orchestra’s roster as probationary.

Both Wex and Ballot started their Vienna tenures in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (Wiener Staatsoper), traditionally a training ground for the Philharmonic. The Staatsoper still has only 5 women, and one of them, oboist Helene Kenyeri, was handed her walking papers in March.

Albena DanailovaBut last Thursday (8 May), the Staatsoper promoted first violinist Albena Danailova to concertmaster. She will take on her new duties with the Staatsoper in September — just as Kenyeri is leaving.

The number of women in the orchestra will thus actually fall, but the dynamics of musical leadership will undergo a seismic shift. Many of the same musicians play in both the Vienna Philharmonic and the State Opera Orchestra, and the politics of this situation will be intriguing to watch. The glass ceiling may not have ruptured yet, but perhaps change is finally in the air for this last bastion of male-dominated classical music-making.

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5 Responses to “Vienna’s Glass Ceiling Cracking?”

  1. anonymous Says:

    While the subject of this article is relevant and important, the writer should be careful to do more research to ensure that his facts are accurate.

    1. “In most cases, for example, prospective players now try out behind screens that hide them from the judges.”

    While it is true that most orchestras have some part of their auditions screened, very few actually go through the entire process without seeing the applicant. Most, like Vienna, remove the screen for the final round. The later quote about the Philharmonic believing it is important to see what a player looks like seems intended to make the VPO seem outlandish for making such a statement, when many musicians (male and female) would likely agree.

    2. “the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (Wiener Staatsoper), traditionally a training ground for the Philharmonic.”

    Actually, the Staatsoper is the ONLY way into the Philharmonic.

    “In accordance with Philharmonic statutes, only a member of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra can become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic. Before joining the Philharmonic therefore, one must first successfully audition for a position with the State Opera Orchestra and prove oneself capable over a period of three years before becoming eligible to submit an application for membership in the association of the Vienna Philharmonic.”

  2. David Roden Says:

    Thanks for your comment. I confess, I haven’t surveyed orchestras about their current audition screening practices. I also haven’t found a source which documents which orchestras do and don’t currently screen audition final rounds. If you know of an authoritative source, I’d appreciate it if you’d please post a reference.

    I did refer to “Orchestrating Impartiality,” a paper published in 1997. There authors Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse report that of the eleven major orchestras they studied, 4 had fully or partially screened final audition stages. That’s over one-third. Of course, eleven orchestras is a pretty meager sample from which to draw definitive conclusions about percentages screening finals.

    Goldin and Rouse assert that “For female musicians who made it to the final round, the individual fixed-effects regression result indicates that the screen increases the likelihood of their winning by about 30 percentage points.” Thus, I’d say it’s definitely worth noting that the Phil gave the initial nod to Plaichinger in 2001 despite the absence of the screen in the final round.

    Perhaps it is “important to see what musicians look like while they play,” but I have to wonder what kind of appearance would legitimately disqualify someone with outstanding technique and musicianship.

    As for your second point, I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that the Staatsoper is “traditionally a training ground for the Philharmonic,” but thank you for clarifying the personnel relationship between the two.

  3. barb johnston Says:

    Re: your claim that TV producers were only permitted to show the harpist’s hands and her name was not printed in the program, do you have a corroborating source for this information? I am not saying that these claims are untrue, but I would be interested to know where you got this information.

  4. barb johnston Says:

    Also, Albena Danailova wasn’t “promoted”, she comes from the Bavarian State Orchestra, where she was concertmaster.

  5. David Roden Says:

    Hello Ms Johnston. Thanks for your comments.

    William Osborne mentions the restrictions I cited: “Only [Anna Lelkes's] hands were allowed to be shown during television broadcasts, her name was not included in programs, and she was excluded from most of the orchestra’s official photos. In some cases, she even wore a gown made to look like a Frach.”

    The Guardian for 10 January 2003 reported that “In the past, the [Vienna Philharmonic] has been forced to temporarily accept a female harpist, Anna Lelkes, because of the shortage of male harpists. When she performed, she was not mentioned in the programme or shown on television. The cameramen were told to focus on the male performers and only Lelkes’ hands made a momentary appearance.”

    Radio Bulgaria reports that Albena Danailova “has so far taken two prominent seats as a concert-master – in the London Philharmonics and Bavarian Opera in Munich.”

    According to the 8 May 2008 AFP report I used in preparing this item, “Albena Danailova … will become the first-ever woman to lead the orchestra of Vienna State Opera. Danailova already plays first violin in the orchestra and in the Bavarian State Opera orchestra in Munich.”

    This is the same link that I cited in the original entry.

    I could have misunderstood the news item, or it may have been carelessly worded. However, in this context, “plays first violin in the orchestra” seems pretty clear to me — it would indicate that when named as leader of the Staatsoper, Danailova was a current member of the Staatsoper’s first violin section. Thus, making her concertmaster would constitute a promotion at the Staatsoper.

    Whether you consider it a promotion or not, the point of the piece is that the Staatsoper has taken on a woman as concertmaster, a most welcome change in attitude for Vienna. I doubt that many people (other than the most staid Vienna orchestra members) would argue with that!

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