When orchestras discriminate

 How do we approach an orchestra with a sordid history and some questionable tactics when it comes to hiring women and minorities?  This March, New Yorkers will face that exact question when the Vienna Philharmonic comes to Carnegie Hall.

Do you ever have the problem of not being able to enjoy an event or organization as well if you know what goes on "behind the scenes?"  Take professional sports, for example: is a baseball game diminished for you since the revelations about performance enhancing drugs have come to light?  Or how about a more extreme case: would you listen to a lecture on public education from William Ayers in the same manner as you would a lecture from an anonymous professional?

These types of questions come up for me when I listen to music performed by ensembles or individuals about whom I "have heard things."  Certain conductors, for example, I have heard certain stories about, which tend to give me pause when deciding on a specific recording to play on air.  Similarly, "so-and-so is such a diva off-stage" and like tales make me think twice on occasion about playing this or that recording of a much-loved aria.  I try to divorce stories, gossip, rumors, and tales from music selection, but that can prove to be difficult.

These thoughts came up for me after reading this article in the New York Times about the Vienna Philharmonic's upcoming visit to Manhattan.  

Vienna's history is colored with associations to anti-semites and former Nazi SS officers, and the orchestra has historically banned women and minorities from its ranks (specifically people of Asian decent).  While under new leadership in recent years Vienna has indeed had an occasional female member, the current ratio still stands at 134-2 male-female.  The orchestra claims that there simply are no women candidates that play in the "Vienna Philhamrmonic style" well enough to earn employment.  Some orchestra members, though, have been more specific, citing a disruption of the emotional stability of the ensemble were women to infiltrate its ranks.

So Vienna claims it is making progress forward, but can we really believe them when half of the graduates of music schools in Germany and Austria are women, and yet only 0.015% of the orchestra is female?  And at that, one of the two is a harpist, an instrument commonly played by women in that orchestra, who only recently gained tenure even though her male harpist collegaues acheived tenure far earlier.

All this gives me pause when considering listening to the Vienna Philharmonic.  Do I really want to support an organization with this blatantly deep-seated gender and racial bias?  And be warned: Vienna is not the only culprit.  I must say that pulling back the curtain on Vienna's discrimination certainly makes it more challenging for me to enjoy their recordings--in particular ones made in recent years when the concepts of equality and parity are clearly accepted and understood.  But, it makes performances by other orchestras that subscribe to mainstream ideals sound all the better, don't you think?



Excellent Article

I've often wondered about these very same questions. I, too, have tried divorcing art of all types from it's creator, but since art is a product of that person and their beliefs, it can be very difficult to do that. As a libertarian, I don't believe it's the government's job to step in and 'fix' these problems. I thing it's much more effective for the music fans and musicians to pressure these organizations to change their ways. Therefore, if it DOES bother us that the Vienna Orchestra so blatantly discriminates against women and minorities, then it IS our job to raise our voices about it. Perhaps it is time to stop trying to separate art from politics when it comes to issues like these.

It's a complicated issue, but that's my two cents. Keep up the great work Chris, you sounded great on the radio today!

When Orchestras Discriminate

As one considers the influence of knowledge of the moral and ethical qualities of the artist on one's ability to enjoy the art, it may help to study how the issue has played out with regard to the playing of Wagner's music in Israel. Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite, and was widely quoted.

"In a tractate, Das Judenthum in der Musik, first published in 1850 under a pseudonym in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Wagner wrote that Jewish music is bereft of all expression, characterized by coldness and indifference, triviality and nonsense. The Jew, he claimed, has no true passion to impel him to artistic creation. The Jewish composer, according to Wagner, makes a confused heap of the forms and styles of all ages and masters. To admit a Jew into the world of art results in pernicious consequences. In Deutsche Kunst und Deutsche Politik, Wagner spoke of the "harmful influence of Jewry on the morality of the nation," adding that the subversive power of Jewry stands in contrast to the German psyche."

That quote and an extensive discussion of the issue may be found at:


The article concludes:

"The argument that music must be separated from politics is not cogent in general, and certainly not in this case. If anybody introduced politics into music, it was Richard Wagner himself. "

The question you are asking, Chris, is the same question. Can you separate the art from the politics; in this case the discrimination against women and minorities. I agree with this view, and with your concern about the Vienna Philharmonic. I do not buy their recordings.