VIENNA — Amid threats of boycotts and demonstrations, the world-renowned Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra ended 155 years of tradition Thursday and voted to admit women to its illustrious, all-male ranks.
The decision came on the eve of an international tour that takes the orchestra to California next week. U.S. women's groups planning protests against the orchestra's refusal to audition female musicians said the demonstrations will proceed despite the vote as a way to keep up the pressure.
Acting on its new policy, the philharmonic immediately received harpist Anna Lelkes as a full member. Because of a critical shortage of male harpists, Lelkes, 57, has been allowed to play with the orchestra for 26 years but never formally admitted. It was only two years ago that her name was ever included on a concert program, and that was for a New York performance.
"This is a breakthrough, a big step forward, but I still want to wait to see what will really happen," said Regina Himmelbauer, a music historian who has been attempting to rally the protest from Vienna. "I hope the harpist will not be the [token] woman."
In theory, women will be able to audition for several string and brass chairs that come open this summer, but new inductees would still have to pass a three-year probation period before applying for the philharmonic.
Also, the private philharmonic and its partner institution, the government-financed State Opera Orchestra, from which philharmonic members are chosen, will not change their audition procedures, philharmonic Chairman Werner Resel said in an interview. The procedures will remain even though both bodies issued a statement that they had decided "effective immediately, musicians of both sexes will have equal chances for becoming members of the Vienna Philharmonic."
Auditions are conducted behind screens, so that neither the sex nor race of the musician can be seen, but a final round before choices are made is almost always held without the screens. And aspiring members will continue to be required to include photographs with their applications and resumes, Resel said.
Critics charge that in addition to deliberately excluding women, the Vienna Philharmonic discriminates against ethnic minorities. All its members are white Central European men, although two--father-son violinists--are Jewish, according to orchestra officials.
The orchestra maintains that its "homogeneity" gives the ensemble its unique and valued sound. Resel insisted that selections of new members are made only on the basis of artistic talent, as well as their ability to "be integrated into our community."
"The only pressure we feel is our own quality," said Resel, a cellist.
In fact, Austria's center-left government, chagrined at the bad publicity it was receiving, had become increasingly vocal in demanding that the orchestra end its ban on female members.
Philharmonic members have given a variety of reasons over the years for maintaining their men's club, including fears that women would change the sound of the music or that prolonged maternity leaves would erode quality.
Resel said a change in labor regulations, agreed to on Thursday with government officials, made the difference. Austrian law entitles women to a two-year maternity leave with pay; the new rules will allow men and women to take the leave, permit the placement of substitute players and require returning musicians, male and female, to try out before a jury.
The orchestra's detractors, as well as some government officials, have maintained that the pregnancy issue was merely a smoke screen.
Of about 90 men attending Thursday's orchestral General Assembly of musicians, a "good majority" voted in favor of opening up to women, Resel said. But he refused to release the breakdown of the vote. The philharmonic has approximately 143 members.
While praising the long-overdue inclusion of harpist Lelkes, U.S. organizers of demonstrations scheduled for Orange County and Carnegie Hall appearances cautioned that there was a long way to go yet for the orchestra to end its discriminatory practices.
"At this point the Vienna Philharmonic has not disbanded [its] all-male ideology, which will take some time," said Catherine Pickar, a music professor at George Washington University in Washington and a spokeswoman for the International Alliance for Women in Music.
"Until we see visible results, we will keep up" the protest, she said.
A spokeswoman for Carnegie Hall denied a report in the Austrian press that the hall might ban the orchestra in the future unless it admitted women.
"There has been a lot of discussion of what the orchestra has been going through," Jennifer Wada, Carnegie Hall director of publication relations, said Thursday. "Insofar as demonstrations and women's admission is an important issue, it was discussed seriously by the staff and the board as a matter of business. But we never came to the conclusion to possibly ban the orchestra if it did not admit women."