When orchestras discriminate
By Chris Van Hof ~ Posted Thu, 02/26/2009 - 12:45pm
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?