This article was prompted by a discussion on National Public Radio (NPR) during the last week of February, 2014. Four experts grappled with the Vienna Philharmonic’s ethos. Some believed it had not changed and others believed it was changing. Every visit to the United States by the orchstra precipitates discussions such as this. NPR’s panel was unable to arrive at any conclusions. I heard nothing new about the old things and all the new things had been old for many years. I wondered, who produced this show and why?
The city of Vienna and its orchestra are almost synonymous. New Year’s Eve, the Strauss family, and the Wiener Philharmoniker personify Viennese sophistication, opulence and gemuchlikeit.
Both have been under siege, the city in 1683 by the Ottoman Empire and the orchestra in 1945 by Allied war crimes investigators. The siege of Vienna lasted two months. The orchestra has endured almost 70 years of periodic assaults,each launched by the tocsin of misogyny and Nazism.
The most recent attacks began early in 2014 after it was announced the orchestra would headline Carnegie Hall’s festival, Vienna the City of Dreams. [1.] The Philharmonic’s reputation as an all white, all male orchestra and its past association with Nazism, provided ample fodder for its critics.
The Philharmoniker is governed by its members. Before and during World War II, the director of the orchestra was a trumpet player and rabid Nazi Party member. There are many who continue to condemn the orchestra for a decision it made under his aegis almost 90 years ago, the expulsion of its Jewish players.
Today, criticisms of the orchestra seem peevish and are often specious. They ring false on modern ears. When the orchestra first engaged Leonard Bernstein, it was mocked for being a political move intended to show the West it had nothing against Jews. The hiring of its first female player, was labled tokenism. The orchestra’s critics admit some issues are being addressed, but complain about the slow pace of change. Today there are about 10 women in the orchestra including an assistant concertmaster.
At one time I was emboldened by knowing an all male, all white, all Austrian trained orchestra was alive and well in the world, carrying on a rich cultural history that included a great music tradition. In matching shirts, ties, vests, jackets and pants, they were cool, Some spice for the world’s symphonic mix I thought. I assumed Vienna had the orchestra it wanted and needed.
The PC continue to fulminate against the Vienna Philharmonic. Barking and snapping at its heels, they demand it become like other orchestras. But will these critics ever level their political correctness on the Israel Philharmonic? Now that is a story I hope never to read. The last thing our over homogenized world needs is for its cultural traditions to merge.[2.]
[2.] I have edited somewhat the article below which was reprinted in Douglas McLennan’s ArtsJournal‘s of 14 April. R.E.
Reuters,) – The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra will return to a French family a valuable painting that was looted by the Nazis and given to the orchestra as a gift in 1940 by a Viennese secret police official.
The heirs of the painting’s late owner, Marcel Koch, will receive “Port-en-Bessin” by neo-Impressionist Paul Signac at a ceremony this year, the orchestra said on Saturday, announcing the latest step to address its past association with Nazism.
About half the Philharmonic’s musicians were Nazi party members by 1942, four years after Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Thirteen musicians with Jewish origins or relations were driven out of the orchestra and five died in concentration camps.
The orchestra is known for its New Year’s Concert, an annual gala of Strauss waltzes broadcast to millions around the world. The New Year’s Concert was invented as a Nazi propaganda instrument.
“The deeper one digs into the Vienna Philharmonic’s past, the more ‘corpses’ emerge from the orchestra pit,” he (Green Party member Harald Walser) said.
See also the Birgit Nielsen Prize for 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/10754804/Vienna-Philharmonic-worthy-winner-of-the-Birgit-Nilsson-Prize.html