"Vienna Philharmonic: Keeping That Sound (and Everything Else) as Is"



New York Times

September 26, 1999



SEEWALCHEN AMATTERSEE, Austria -- Yes, 1999 is a Johann Strauss year,

filled with commemorations of the composer's death 100 years ago. And yes,

it ends in the turning not only of the century but also of the millennium.


Yet when the Vienna Philharmonic performs Strauss waltzes on New Year's

Eve and New Year's Day in the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna and on worldwide

television, it will be conducting business more or less as usual.


Indeed, as the 21st century looms and the Vienna Philharmonic opens

Carnegie Hall's classical season with four concerts beginning on

Wednesday, it is tempting to wonder to what extent the venerable orchestra

has come to terms with the 20th. And for that matter, to what extent an

institution whose form and purposes are so firmly rooted in the 19th

century should have done so.


Musically, the orchestra remains a model. It may not always perform with

the sheer power or precision of its counterparts in America and elsewhere;

in fact, it prides itself in a certain gemutlich laxness of ensemble. "We

are in Austria," Michael Werba, a Philharmonic bassoonist, said recently

to a young group of musicians he was coaching here at the International

Orchestra Institute, Attergau. "It's together, but not exactly."


But at a time when many orchestras, drawing from the same international

pool of players and sharing the same international round of conductors,

have begun to sound alike, the Vienna Philharmonic outdoes them all in

character and individuality of sound. That distinctive sonority is the

prime subject of the institute in this little lakeside town in the Alps.


It is directed by Wolfgang Schuster, a timpanist and the press information

officer of the self-governing Vienna Philharmonic, and the teachers are

mostly members of the orchestra, filling what few gaps may remain in a

demanding schedule of rehearsals and performances at the Salzburg

Festival, some 45 minutes west. The Vienna Philharmonic remains, perhaps,

the ultimate period instrument for the orchestral works of Brahms,

Bruckner and Strausses of every variety, and it is a glamorous vehicle for

almost anything else.


But socially, the 135-member Philharmonic gets more mixed reviews. In

recent years, a younger generation of players has taken over the

orchestra's management from The Professors, as Werner Resel, a cellist and

the former president, and Walter Blovsky, a violist and the former general

manager, were widely known.


The president is Clemens Hellsberg, 47, a violinist, the orchestra's

archivist and the author of "Demokratie der Koenige" ("Democracy of

Kings," 1992, not yet available in English), a weighty, lavishly

illustrated history of the orchestra, which treats its sometimes

unedifying activities during the Nazi era with unsparing candor.


Hellsberg has spearheaded a movement to make this proud ensemble face up

to the unsavory aspects of its own past as well as its country's. The most

notable outcome so far is a concert scheduled for next May at Mauthausen,

Austria, the site of a concentration camp in which more than 100,000

people perished between 1938 and 1945. Sir Simon Rattle will conduct

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.


"Some say: 'Fight the Beginnings,"' Hellsberg writes in a commemorative

booklet. "Instead, I believe that 'Recognize the Beginnings' is the lesson

we should draw from history for the future."


Hellsberg has also organized chamber concerts with orchestra members in

New York, at the Jewish Museum and at Rockefeller University. The

Rockefeller series, which continues on Tuesday in the Caspary Auditorium,

raises funds for the Salzburg-Cornell Seminars, a project sponsored by the

American-Austrian Foundation in which American medical doctors share their

expertise with doctors from Eastern Europe.


All very forward-looking, it must seem to any but the most cynical, who --

unable to judge Hellsberg's evident sincerity for themselves -- might

suspect a public-relations smoke screen. For there is still that perennial

hot button: women, or lack of them, in the orchestra. A second woman,

Julie Palloc, a harpist, has now joined the parent Vienna State Opera

Orchestra and thus embarked on the customary long march to the



In 2001, she will join the first female member, Anna Lelkes, also a

harpist, for a trial year. Other women have auditioned for the opera

orchestra, unsuccessfully, and there appear to be no likely candidates in

the wings.


But what about all those young players at the institute? Of the 68 fellows

enrolled this year, 31 were women, but none of several who were questioned

voiced any illusions that study here might be a path to membership in the

orchestra. Nor, for that matter, did the men who were questioned, though a

few former fellows of the institute, which is now in its fifth year, are

in fact orchestra members.


For most, it seems, the institute is simply an opportunity to work with

respected members of the Philharmonic and to learn something of the

Viennese sound style.


Although the institute pays for travel and for lodging in a quaint hotel

in nearby St. Georgen, funds were tight this year, tilting the

international balance. Thirty fellows were picked from Austria, and most

of the rest from Central Europe; five were from East Asia and four from

the United States.


"No Americans know of it," said Rebecca McConnell, a French-horn player

from Indiana who is studying at the University of Southern California. She

hopes to return next year, she added.


Ms. McConnell worked with Gunter Hogner, a noted horn player from the

Philharmonic. But the big man on campus -- at least before Sir Neville

Marriner arrived to rehearse the first concert, with Sarah Chang as

soloist, in the rustic concert hall built into Schuster's mountain home --

was a little-known horn player from the Vienna Volksoper Orchestra, Gregor



Widholm, who is also a professor at the University of Music and Performing

Arts in Vienna, is the guru of the Vienna sound. With Schuster, he has

assembled an ever-expanding booklet, "Wiener Klangstil," presenting "facts

and background information on the particular sound of the Vienna

Philharmonic" and undoubtedly destined to become a sizable book.


Some aspects of the Vienna sound, it turns out, can be taught to

performers, but others cannot, since -- especially in wind instruments --

they depend chiefly on the manufacture of the instrument: the size of the

bore, the thickness and curvature of the bell.


Widholm, ensconced in a makeshift acoustical laboratory, was a veritable

Mr. Wizard, comparing the overtone production of Viennese instruments with

that of their more or less conventional counterparts in vivid graphic

displays. Specifically Viennese instruments were found in virtually every

case to produce more overtones, thus lending more color to the tone and

allowing an easier, freer rise to loud dynamics by giving a sense of

greater sonority.


"There are advantages and disadvantages to both," Widholm said. "One is

not 'good' and the other 'bad,"' he added, trying to sound convincing.


The differences between styles of instruments have more practical

ramifications as well. Some instruments are played virtually only in

Vienna or in Austria. And although the Vienna Philharmonic has been

criticized for its insularity toward non-Viennese and non-Austrian players

as well as women, it may be hard to get around.


"The Viennese oboe is played in only four or five orchestras in Vienna,"

said Martin Gabriel, the Philharmonic oboist on the faculty of the

institute. Gabriel would not be able to pick up the French-style oboes of

the fellows and play them without extensive retraining, he added. Even

less could they play his, a model that stems more directly from the

Baroque oboe.


"They're different instruments," he said. "The reeds are completely

different." He added a Viennese refrain that was becoming less convincing

each of the many times it was heard: "It's not that one is 'better' than

the other."


"There's a very small market," Gabriel concluded. "You can't work up 20 to

30 students for two vacancies." In most cases, students of players in the

Vienna Philharmonic have an inside track to an orchestra that so prizes

tradition, oral as well as written. Gabriel's students would seem to have

it made. And the situation with horns is only slightly less extreme.


Such closed circles seem to be everywhere in this orchestra. There are

legitimate artistic concerns in trying to preserve quality, trying to

preserve character, and the simplest and surest way to address them is to

do things the way they have always been done. The structure is such that

without any tinkering, the pace of change can only be glacial.


But circumstances are changing around the orchestra, Hellsberg explained

in his summer office, which, as he gleefully pointed out, is located in

the Institute for Moral Theology at the University of Salzburg. Cuts in

government financing threaten to trigger cuts in the level of wages and

pensions for new players.


And salary levels for the current players, whom no one has ever accused of

being slackers, already appear low, certainly by American standards.

Although Hellsberg refused to cite a typical salary, he said that the

total of all salaries is $8 million, a figure that would put the average

salary at about $54,000, $30,000 or more below the base salary of the top

American orchestras.


It is still hard to imagine a world in which a crack instrumentalist would

not aspire to join the Vienna Philharmonic, and it was probably defensive

bravado when fellows at the institute suggested that they would not want

the grind. "Sometimes they have to play nine hours a day," said one.

Still, the orchestra does seem to have fallen on a time when it will need

all the potential candidates it can get. So how to open those circles?


Not through even the most innocuous affirmative action, evidently. When it

was pointed out to Hellsberg that so many members of the orchestra,

Schuster included, are sons of former members, and that perhaps daughters

could be given the same encouragement from the cradle up, he deflected the



It is a difficult situation, he said, one that he now faces on a different

level, because he has a son he would like to see enter the orchestra

someday, but only if he is deemed good enough by the audition committee

(from which he, as a family member, would be barred).


One would, of course, expect nothing less from the Vienna Philharmonic.

Certainly the current crop of sons won their places through merit. As if

to drive the point home, Peter Schmidl, a third-generation clarinetist in

the orchestra, took part in a concert presented by Schuster's umbrella

organization, Attergauer Kultursommer, in nearby Vocklamarkt, and played

like a demigod. So why shouldn't -- at the very least -- daughters of

orchestra members have the same opportunity?


Well, there are potential problems, one of them being the child leave

granted by Austrian law. A woman (or indeed, a man) is allowed up to two

years' leave and guaranteed the right to return to the same job. The

players in an orchestra, especially this one, are not dispensable or

interchangeable. Still, at a certain point, as in so many other matters, a

modicum of good faith must be applied from both sides.


One thing is sure: the issue of the hiring of women will not go away for

this orchestra. Almost as sure, the orchestra will not be pushed. It has

shown that it will move at its own pace and on its own terms. But that

pace has already given way to surprising spurts in other areas.


Maybe the fresh winds now blowing through these venerable precincts will

knock down a wall or two. Then again, it might be simpler and more

effective just to put one up: the same camouflaging screen for the final

round of auditions that is used for the earlier rounds. And may the best

"man" win.