Do I hear any bravos for Justin Davidson’s principled stand against the Vienna Philharmonic? He wrote he would not be attending the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall concerts this past weekend. For that matter, he added, “it may be years before I review it again.” This is no small thing. Davidson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critc with readers in the New York region.
His piece in Newsday, headlined “Vienna is slow to change its tune,” appeared while I was away in Alabama.
Further, Davidson wrote: “I believe that the Vienna Philharmonic has relinquished its claim to serious consideration as a dynamic cultural organization.” To feminists who have criticized its exclusion of women that has been obvious for decades, as well as the fact that “the geological pace of change is not merely a regrettable obstacle in the relentless pursuit of quality. It is the product of a narrowly preservationist, antiquarian philosophy, which fetishizes sound at the expense of spirit.”
But Davidson makes the unusual point, so easily overlooked, that the orchestra’s backward attitude contradicts the most significant aspect of its musical history:
The composers in the Vienna Philharmonic’s pantheon were all disturbers of the peace, and they railed against the city’s recurring fondness for the status quo. Beethoven was a liberal idealist, a radical egalitarian and artistic revolutionary who would have been revolted by the claim that performing his forward-looking, constantly renewable music required an inflexible reverence for custom.
“This idea that the true tradition of the orchestra is one of innovation is very interesting,” says William Osborne, the Vienna Phil’s longtime nemesis. “It was only after the Nazification of the orchestra during World War II that it became associated with conservatism and tradition.”
(Osborne, I wrote long ago, was the chief instigator who “mobilized a tiny, far-flung band of feminists” that pressured the Vienna Philharmonic to accept its first woman member.)
Meanwhile, this morning’s headline over Bernard Holland’s swooning review of the Vienna Philharmonic in The New York Times, “Viennese Boys’ Club, in for the Weekend,” probably won’t be clipped for the orchestra’s scrap book.
The review itself — with phrases such as “overpowering beauty” and “Viennese mist of loveliness” — leaves no doubt that Holland adores the sound of the boys’ club. But Holland’s unctuous disregard of its sexism has begun to crumble — slightly. He spends three of 11 paragraphs on the orchestra’s “lack of women” and the “ruckus” it has caused, even critiquing the orchestra’s program notes as “coy” and “oozing.”
Holland is still as condescending as ever about the issue of feminism. And he merely repeats what Osborne has said about the importance of the Vienna Phil’s reception in America “for a lot of its prestige and bottom line.” But for the first time I’m aware of, he says: “I think the orchestra’s embrace of an all-male sound is wrong.” That’s a milestone for Holland, his caveat about American do-goodism notwithstanding.
Postscript: Davidson follows up with his take on race in American orchestras and gets a snide response at the American Spectator.