The anticipated arrival of the Vienna Philharmonic on these shores drew international attention to more than its renown as an orchestra. The threat of boycotts and demonstrations in Orange County and in New York City led to the admission on Feb. 27 of the all-male orchestra's first woman and to a vote to audition others beginning this summer.
The orchestra's first concert at the Orange County Performing Arts Center Tuesday night was met with about 80 demonstrators who presented their case with a very civilized fiddle and flute. They petitioned the Vienna Philharmonic to hire women, and generally, in the words of one protest leader, "to join the 20th century."
The vote granting membership to harpist Anna Lelkes, who had played with the orchestra for 26 years but had never been named as a full member, was a modest start. That was so, even if the orchestra's gesture was, as the harpist suggested, a bow to pressure exerted by American activists.
Even as the door was ostensibly opened to participation by more women, critics noted that auditioning procedures still would pose potential obstacles to further hirings, and there were other charges that the orchestra also discriminates against ethnic minorities.
The assertion of the orchestra that its sound resulted from its "homogeneity" was greeted with skepticism, and there was even a touch of irony in Times music critic Mark Swed's conclusion after Tuesday night's concert (absent Lelkes) that Mozart's Symphony No. 29 sounded "so polished as to seem like the most precious of fine alabaster, not the work of a feisty young man dazzling Vienna with the newness of his inventions." We have all learned a thing or two in recent weeks about tradition and its limitations.
In the United States of the late 1990s, we celebrate our pluralism. As much as we would like others who share our aesthetic sensibilities to also share our democratic instincts, we find that ideals still must compete with other values in the world's marketplace of culture.
However modest the gesture of hiring a woman might have been for the orchestra, ultimately this was a story about the influence of American principles on a larger world.