Like 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.
But 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.