When an Orchestra is Biased, We Who Pay the Pipers Should Call the Tune

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday March 02, 2011 - 12:19:00 PM

So, is it okay to censure and/or boycott arts organization on account of “political” questions? A friend forwarded Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman’s gutsy column twitting the Vienna Philharmonic for continuing to limit most of their hires to white guys in a world where female and non-white musicians are increasingly prominent.

In my knee-jerk liberal innocence, I assumed that the sender agreed with the sentiments express therein. I posted the link in The Editor’s Back Fence space last week, and I forwarded it to a list of my musical friends. Well, it seems that the male sender wasn’t quite on the same page—he followed up with a letter explaining from his perspective the justifying rationale for the Vienna orchestra’s hiring polices, and pointing out that they do now have a couple of women in the group, including one in a leadership role.

But my musical friends—at least those who wrote back—didn’t agree with him. Oddly enough, those who answered were all women. I’ll quote them without names because they weren’t intending to write for publication, 

From a fine string player who is one of the Bay Area’s leading teachers: 

“Thanks for sending this on. I was really happy to see this being spoken about here. “When I lived in the UK, the Vienna Phil came almost every year to London to perform and every year this would be brought up and the Vienna Phil would just say "women just can't produce the golden tone that men can" (this is an almost quote from an article in the London Times.) Audiences just seemed to accept that outright, and it was always pushed aside. Meanwhile, no orchestras that wouldn't allow blacks to participate from South Africa were welcomed into the UK (or anywhere else) so the double standard is really disgusting.
“I went to conservatory with a violist from the Vienna Phil (fantastic player) who had left the orchestra out of frustration that they were bringing in players who weren't really up to snuff (but were male and Viennese) while passing over superior players that were Viennese but female. He wasn't the nicest person and didn't really care about the social issue but he did care about the lower grade of playing. It's amazing that they are still getting away with it so thanks for spreading the word!”  

From a European friend with an academic background and a musician daughter: 

“Your comment about the Vienna MEN'S Philharmonic Orchestra…as I have always called it...struck a nerve!

“I first visited Vienna as a teenager and even then, was infuriated by the all male composition of this men's orchestra. Since then, despite really liking Vienna, I do not attend any of the all male events when I visit the city. “ I think it is smug, sickening, offensive and has no place in any venue which was built by and supported in part by public funds. If I was offered free tickets, I [would] give them away.

“Isn't it actually illegal for a public building to rent space to a clearly anti human rights group?

“UCB, of which I am a PhD graduate, should not book such an elitist event. If it wasn't that I was participating in a gospel choir for Black History month this Friday night, I would go and picket the auditorium myself.”  

From another musician friend, a singer whose late father played in a major orchestra: 

“I did read Kosman this morning and was pleased that he chose to highlight the bizarre situation with Vienna Phil. I can always tell, on Channel 32, when they are showing the Vienna group because it is so noticeable that there are almost no women. When Karajan was in charge there were none allowed. I hadn’t thought of the diversity part, but Kosman rightfully pointed that out as well. “Well, I don’t think it is up to us to tell them what to do…we can show our displeasure by not attending. I’m not going, but mainly because they have jacked up the ticket prices so high!”  

And from an avid concert-goer: 

“I would hope demonstrators show their disgust for this blatant exclusion.”
Are demonstrations the right way to express such opinions? 

The Israel Philharmonic was greeted in San Francisco last week (as it has been around the country) by vigorous demonstrators who object not to the orchestra’s hiring practices but to the policies of the sponsoring country. The Chronicle covered that demonstration, but only in the gossip column

It could be argued that mixing politics with art has gone too far in this case, since the musicians can’t really control their government’s treatment of Palestine. Israeli classical musicians, notably Daniel Barenboim, have taken leading affirmative roles in trying to bring peace with justice to that troubled region. Musicians themselves vigorously debate what they should do about knotty political questions, but they don’t all agree. 

Myself, I’m with the letter writer who voted with her feet, who just skipped the very pricey Vienna Phil concerts. The world is full of fine performances, too many to attend them all, so we can easily spend our time and money supporting those which are admirable both in conception and in execution. 

I find it hard to believe that any male violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic can hold a candle to our own Elizabeth Blumenstock, whose performance in the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s recreation of Vivaldi’s all-girl orchestra (with some male participants) last year was beyond thrilling. The Berkeley Symphony’s Joana Carneiro is living proof that gender will be no barrier in the symphonic orchestra of the future, which Marin Allsop has been demonstrating for years now at the Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz. 

As far as ethnicity is concerned, anyone who goes to the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s concerts can’t miss the number of outstanding African-American musicians whose performances can be enjoyed in the Bay Area. Conductor Michael Morgan, himself African American, manages to find them all. I’m a particular fan of San Francisco Opera’s bassoonist Rufus Olivier, who played Mozart’s bassoon concerto with the OEBS not long ago, and I was delighted when his son Rufus David Olivier turned up in the Berkeley Symphony orchestra’s last concert. 

Lovers of the European classical tradition are very lucky that so many fine Asian and Asian-American musicians are carrying it forward. The Chinese pianist Lang-Lang, thought by many to be the best in the world these days, is the most visible exemplar of this trend, but it can also be seen in the number of young Asian musicians of all genders who are moving up in the big orchestras—except, of course, for the Vienna Phil. 

And by the way, how did they do with the critics in their recent San Francisco outing? A quick Google suggests that they got A+ for expression, B for technical precision with most reviewers. We’ll let Kosman, now the dean of the Bay Area’s music critics, have the last word

“The sonorous power of the orchestra's ensemble playing—its sumptuous string sound, piquant woodwinds and elegantly burnished brass—are beyond cavil or reproach; but the technical prowess on display, not so much.
“In Schubert's Second Symphony, the fleet-footed precision needed for the young composer's Mozartean phrases was not always in evidence, and the Schumann - which got under way with some extravagantly flubbed horn calls - boasted more energy than tonal clarity.” Etc. 

Maybe those old white guys would pull up their socks if they had to face real challenges from female or non-white aspirants. Just a thought.