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Why Did the Vienna Philharmonic 

Fire Yasuto Sugiyama?


by William Osborne


Until very recently, the Vienna Philharmonic maintained a long tradition of excluding people who are visibly members of racial minorities.  The orchestra felt that such individuals would destroy the ensemble's image of Austrian authenticity.[1]  These employment practices were directed most specifically toward Asians, since many have studied at the Wiener Musikhochschule and reached the highest professional standards.[2]  Many have also settled in Austria for marriage and other reasons, where they remain potential candidates for positions in the Philharmonic. 


The memoirs published in 1970 by Otto Strasser, a former chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, illustrate the attitudes Asian musicians have confronted: 


“I hold it for incorrect that today the applicants play behind a screen; an arrangement that was brought in after the Second World War in order to assure objective judgments. I continuously fought against it, especially after I became Chairman of the Philharmonic, because I am convinced that to the artist also belongs the person, that one must not only hear, but also see, in order to judge him in his entire personality. [...] Even a grotesque situation that played itself out after my retirement was not able to change the situation. An applicant qualified himself as the best, and as the screen was raised, there stood a Japanese before the stunned jury. He was, however, not engaged, because his face did not fit with the ‘Pizzicato-Polka’ of the New Year’s Concert.”


In the late 1990s, the orchestra was put under pressure to change their employment practices.   


In 2001, the orchestra hired Wilfried Hedenborg, an Austrian violinist whose racial background is half Asian.  And in June 2003, Yasuto Sugiyama, a world-class tubist from the New Japan Philharmonic, was hired.  From the outset, Sugiyama’s appointment was controversial, especially within the brass section.  He did not pass his trial year at the Staatsoper and was fired.  Soon afterwards, Mr. Sugiyama won the tuba audition for the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.


Mr. Hedenborg's appointment received little notice in the press, but some of the comments were notable.  The German news magazine _Focus_ remarked that,  "Even a half-Japanese, son of a Philharmoniker, is now allowed to fiddle along. For a long time this was considered unthinkable, because the television pictures of the New Year's Concert, Mozart Masses, and Beethoven Symphonies were broadcast as nostalgic greeting cards of Middle European 'blessedness' to the whole world."[3]


This was one of the first times that the Vienna Philharmonic's discrimination against people who are visibly members of racial minorities had been acknowledged in the established media. After fulfilling the three-year tenure requirement, Mr. Hedenborg became a member of the Vienna Philharmonic.  Mr. Sugiyama's dismissal, however, raised serious questions.  If he were not qualified, how could he so quickly win a position with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra?  The United States has only about one twenty-third the number of full-time, year-round orchestras per capita as Austria, so the competition for positions is much fiercer.


In response to its critics, the Vienna Philharmonic continues to rely on tokenism.  They mention Mr. Hedenborg, as if having one member who is half Asian somehow represents integration.  All other major orchestras in the world have a much higher representation of Asian members.  The closely related Berlin Philharmonic even has a Japanese concertmaster, Toru Yasunaga. 


In a 1998 interview in the Austrian magazine News, the Vienna Philharmonic’s chairman, Clemens Hellsberg, insisted that the orchestra has had difficulty finding qualified musicians of Asian heritage:


“It’s out of the question to say we do not accept Japanese.  It is just that we have never found any who fit with our special style of playing.  If they don’t have it, they won’t be accepted, and to have studied in Vienna is no guarantee.  Our musicians come out of ten nations, many out of the former Danube Monarchy, our new solo-cellist, for example, from the Budapest Opera.  This is a matter of cultural tradition.”[4]


Almost half of the musicians at the Vienna Academy of Music (Wiener Musikhochschule) are foreigners, and most of those are Asians.  It seems unlikely that no Asians in the 60 years since the Second World War that were qualified to enter the orchestra.  The Philharmonic also notes that Seiji Ozawa has conducted them. Yet having an Asian guest conductor for one week does not equal having permanent Asian members in the rank-and-file of the ensemble.[5] 


This season, violist Ursula Plaichinger was to have become the first non-harpist woman to become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic, but she took a leave of absence under circumstances that have not been explained.  With Ms. Plaichinger's departure, and Mr. Sugiyama's firing, an air of mistrust still surrounds the Vienna Philharmonic and its willingness to end its gender and racial employment practices.




[1]  For documentation of the Vienna Philharmonic's racial ideologies, see the following articles:


+         Roland Girtler, "Mitgliedsaufnahme in den Noblen Bund der Wiener Philharmoniker Als Mannbarkeitsritual", Sociologia Internationalis, Beiheft 1 (1992);

+      Elena Ostleitner, Liebe, Lust, Last und Leid (Wien, Bundesministerium fuer Unterricht und Kunst, 1995) p. 6;

 +    "Musikalische Misogynie," broadcast by the West German State Radio, February 13, 1996, transcribed and translated into English at:  http://www.osborne-conant.org/wdr.htm

  +      William Osborne, "Symphony Orchestras and Artist-Prophets: Cultural Isomorphism and the Allocation of Power in Music." Leonardo Music Journal  9 (1999): 69-76.

[2]  For a specific discussion and further documentation of how these racial ideologies are specifically directed toward Asians, see: "The Special Characteristics of the Vienna Philharmonic's Racial Ideologies" at: <http://www.osborne-conant.org/posts/special.htm> 

[3] Focus, "Ein Himmel Voller Geigen" (December 31, 2000.)  ("Sogar ein Halbjapaner, Sohn eines Philharmonikers, darf jetzt mitgeigen. Das galt lange als undenkbar, weil die Fernsehbilder von Neujahrskonzert, Mozart-Messen und Beethoven-Symphonien als Grußkarten nostalgischer Mitteleuropa-Seligkeit in alle Welt gesendet wurden.")  The sentence is difficult to translate in its subtleties. The term "Halbjapaner" can have an ugly tone approaching "half breed." An equivalent in English might be like saying "a half-negro." There is a quality of racial sarcasm to the statement that is disturbing because it is difficult to determine how ironically it was meant. The article says the musician in question is the son of  „Philharmoniker,“ but no one else with name Hedenborg is listed among the personnel.  If the article is correct, it is possible that there is a second person in the orchestra who is half Asian. 

[4] News (Issue 13, 1998)  ("Es ist keine Rede davon, daß wir keine Japaner nehmen. Es war nur bisher keiner dabei, der vom Spielstil zu uns gepaßt hätte. Wer den nicht hat, wird nicht genommen, und in Wien studiert zu haben, ist noch keine Garantie. Unsere Musiker kommen aus 10 Nationen, viele aus der früheren Donaumonarchie, unser neuer Solocellist, zum Beispiel von der Budapester Oper. Das ist auch eine Sache der kulturellen Tradition.“)

[5] Mr. Ozawa is the General Music Director of the Vienna State Opera, but the conductors there are appointed by the house's administration, not the orchestra.  The Vienna Philharmonic is a private enterprise the musicians run on the side.  The Philharmonic chooses its own conductors, where Ozawa has only occasionally worked as an invited guest.