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If Asians can score for Manchester United, why not the Vienna Philharmonic?

Shinji Kagawa yesterday scored the first hat-trick by an Asian footballer in the UK Premier League. A Japanese recruit from the Bundesliga, Kagawa replaced a Korean, Park Ji-Sung, who sought his fortune down south. There are plenty of Far East players in the world’s most-watched soccer league, all of them acquired expensively on merit. Kagawa cost something in the region of £12 million ($18m).


Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the ever-tortured topic of the Vienna Philharmonic. We’ve been sent a post by a stand-up comedian, Tetsuro Shigematsu, who greets their arrival on a US tour with a  range of ingenious solutions to that little exclusion problem. Among other suggestions, he assures the VPO that lots of Asian players would be happy to undergo cosmetic surgery in order to make themselves suitable for a seat in the ensemble. Here’s a sample:   If you had the misfortune to be born to Asian parents who had classical music designs on you as a fetus, you never had a life. You never went to sleepovers. You missed your prom. In fact, you may still be a virgin!

Asian kids who spent 100,000+ hours weeping into their cellos would consider modifying their appearance to be a very small price to pay for a chance to play in the same hall where Mozart once conducted. Plus, lots of Asians are trying to look white anyhow. Kids from Tokyo all have rust colored hair, and epicanthic eyelid surgery is all the rage in Asia.

Interesting idea, but I have a less painful proposal. Why can’t Vienna buy a couple of used players from the UK Premier League? They’re quick, they shoot, they score, and they never get into the tabloids. They’re great for marketing (see above). Perfect solution.

soccer symphony

Hang on, is that a woman conducting a football team? Forget it. This is the Vienna Philharmonic. We definitely don’t do women.

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  1. Jordi Blanc says:

    The answer is easy: because it is their orchestra and they don’t want to. They select their own players and who can prove that in one audition for a trial with the Wiener Philharmoniker the best player was always a non-asian.

    • Rob2222 says:

      Exactly. It’s because they are free to hire whoever they want. Is that SO difficult to understand? I don’t understand why so many people can’t sleep at night because they are no women and non-whites in the Vienna Phil. Big deal! How many women and non-whites are there in the boards of this countries main companies? Not many, and who cares?

      • Emil Archambault says:

        1. They receive state money, which makes them subject to EU laws banning discrimination based on physical appearance, sex, ethnic origin, etc.

        2. They claim that they reject non-caucasians because of their inferior quality of playing, when this is simply a disguise for racial criteria. If they want to be an orchestra of white males, they should make ethnic origin a criterion for hiring. Now, they are slandering Asians by depicting them as inferior musicians, which is not true.

        3. The VPO, through its standing, propagates the myth that only white Austrians (male, preferably) can play Austrian/central European music. That is just nonsense.

        • 1- That is just NOT true. The Vienna Phil receives receives no public funding. You should read Slipped Disc to be more informed.
          2- They can hire whoever they want. Does a gay orchestra have the obligation to hire straight men? Ifthey don’t hire non-gay musicians, wouldn’t that be discrimination based on sexual oriantation?
          3- They are preserving a tradition and a sound. In a world where the sounds of the orchestras is getting “homogenized”, the Vienna Phil has managed to preserve its traditions and sound. They hire musicians who know, have the sound and understand the spirit if that tradition.

          If you don’t like it, just don’t go to their concerts and don’t buy their CDs, but don’t try to lecture them on what they should do. That’s just arrogant.

          • Patrick JW says:

            So is this understanding of their tradition and sound something that an Asian musician can’t learn?

          • Emil Archambault says:

            1. They are part of the Staatsoper, which is funded by the Austrian state. Look up Mr Lebrecht’s earlier posts on this subject. For instance, look up the December 28th comment by William Osborne.

            2. True. They can hire whoever they want, provided they make it clear what the hiring criteria are. A women’s orchestra, for instance, is very clear about why they will not hire men. They do not try to claim that men are somehow inferior musicians. The VPO claims that Asians (and women, and other minorities) are rejected because of their inferior musicianship, not because of their ethnic origin (or their sex). That is plain misrepresentation of the facts. If they want to discriminate on ethnic origin, they should make “caucasian male” a criteria for hiring. A covert policy of discrimination causes harm both to the orchestra and to the Asian/minorities musicians, who are depicted as inferior when that is simply not true.

            3. How does an Asian musician studying in the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna know less about a tradition than an Austrian musician in the same school? You seem to suggest that all Asian musicians (and women, who suffer from similar discrimination) just show up in Vienna for the audition without having ever heard about it. Many go through the same schools as Austrian musicians,study with the same teachers, and live in the same city. So where do you find this tradition, which is only present in some ethnic group?
            A sound is preserved by ensuring the best musicians are hired. The idea that there is some ‘tradition’ which runs in the veins of the glorious Austrian musicians (or in the air they’re breathing, or whatever) is complete nonsense. A tradition of sound is acquired (and can be acquired by anyone who goes through the proper education), not innate.

            PS: Is that patronising tone absolutely necessary?

          • Rob2222 says:

            They are not part of the Staatsoper. The Wiener Philharmoniker are musicians from the Staatsoper, who also play in a private orchestra. There’s no legal connection between the two institutions. Also, why can’t the aesthetical idea of an all-male all-white members be part of that tradition? They don’t want them, what do I care? Will someone conplaint because there are no men in The Rockettes or white people in the Harlem Globetrotters? The VPO sounds amazing, why should I care that there are no women and no non-whites?

          • Musicians can only become members of the VPO after completing a three year tenure in the Staatsoper Orchestra.

      • It may be true that on paper the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra have no legal connection, but surely they have a practical and operational connection and heavily influence each other. For starters, when the Staatsoper and Philharmonic have conflicting engagements – say when the Philharmonic is on tour while the Staatsoper continues to perform – just how do they decide who plays in which group? Does the Philharmonic really wait until the Staatsoper schedules everyone and then take whomever is left over? Unlikely, since in a normal week of performances at the Staatsoper surely every player would be called on. Surely they have to coordinate performance assignments, which you usually wouldn’t do with an unrelated group. At a minimum the Staatsoper is very accommodating of the moonlighting interests of its musicians.

        Also, as some have noted, players who fail probation at the Philharmonic tend to lose their jobs at the Staatsoper as well. Finally, when last I looked at the Staatsoper roster, I saw relatively few women compared to other orchestras of comparable stature, which suggests that while the Staatsoper orchestra is technically open to women, in practice it’s not. If I am wrong on any facts here, I’ll be interested in being corrected.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          There is no probation period with the WP. Once you pass your probation period in the opera orchestra, you can apply to be a member of the WP. It’s just a formality, it doesn’t involve another audition or passing another probation period. So you can not lose your job at the opera retrospectively.

          The orchestra actually has over 140 members, I believe it’s 149 if all positions are filled, so doing double duty at the opera and on the concert stage isn’t as big a problem as it may seem. The traditional subscription concerts are Saturday at 3:30pm and Sunday at 11am – which means many of them do play both in the concert and at the opera on those days. In addition to the large pool of permanent players they have, they can of course invite extra players to help out now and then.

          And yes, they do co-ordinate their activities with the opera, but it’s not like one organization sets all the dates and then the other is left to work with whatever they can do for a given time period. Typically, both concert and opera schedules are set years in advance because they need to book singers, conductors and soloists a long time before the actual event.

          • “And yes, they do co-ordinate their activities with the opera, but it’s not like one organization sets all the dates and then the other is left to work with whatever they can do for a given time period. Typically, both concert and opera schedules are set years in advance because they need to book singers, conductors and soloists a long time before the actual event.”

            Precisely. There is far more coordination going on than there would be between unrelated entities, say between the Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony. Thanks for the clarification on tenure practices. Though it makes me wonder, do the Staatsoper musicians play as big a role in tenure decisions as American orchestra musicians do? Because if they do, the practical effect is that members of a private organization (the Philharmonic) are making personnel decisions about the public Staatsoper; and few women in the Staatsoper => few in the Philharmonic. I’d have less concern about the Philharmonic being a private club that draws its members from the Staatsoper, if those same Philharmonic members, wearing their Staatsoper hats, weren’t also deciding who plays in the Staatsoper.

    • Bill Becton says:

      As someone coming from business world I can say that there are fewer women and non-white executives because the supply -the talent pool- is still small. This is definitely not the case with high rank musicians.

      Now, I’m hardly Leftist but i’d rather not commune with an organization that seems defiantly misogynist and xenophobic. I underscore the word ‘seems’. Orchestras are in the business of giving pleasure after all, and the VPO’s posture disturbs me.

  2. Marko Velikonja says:

    Never mind the VPO: Even this American know’s it’s the ENGLISH Premier League, however logical a UK league would be (and a UK team, so they would have Gareth Bale).

    • It is a good deal less English since Swansea were promoted.

      • Keith Kothman says:

        In the ever present age of corporate sponsorship, it’s the Barclays Premier League.

        And not to be too snarky about it, but does the VPO have any relevance today beyond being the home of Mozart and Haydn? How is it not a museum orchestra?

        • Martin Locher says:

          I see no reason to include sponsor’s name, as I doubt Slipped Disc is getting any money from them.

  3. Music is about excellence not ticking racial diversity boxes.

    Having heard the VPO’s Beethoven cycle recently with Christian Thiellemann they don’t need to change anything, and nor should they.

    • Rob2222 says:


    • Patrick JW says:

      I am consistently amazed at this ignorant, small minded point of view. Yes, it’s about excellence. But guess what? Asian musicians are excellent players! Many of them are my colleagues, and I love playing with them. Some of them have even studied in Vienna, and have told me that they left Austria because of the racism directed towards them by Austrian musicians. It’s not an aggressive racism. There are no lynchings or cross burnings. It’s more of a patronizing racism, a racism that says there’s no possible way someone who has an Asian name or who looks Asian could play like an Austrian, no matter how long they’ve lived and studied in Vienna.

      So when you say that it’s about excellence and not race, you should be telling that to the musicians of the Vienna Phil. They’ve made race (and sex, let’s not forget the rampant misogyny in this orchestra) an issue time after time. They don’t shrink away from it. They’ve gone on record again and again with their offensive statements about minorities and women.

      What myself and others would like is for this orchestra to give these musicians a chance, to look past their race and their sex and focus on their abilities as musicians. No quotas, no mandates, just a chance. I don’t think that racial or gender purity is necessary to uphold the traditions of this orchestra. I think that minorities and women can play just as well as any white Austrian man.

      • Exactly, “PatrickJW.” And very well put! It would be nice to know where and what you play, but if that is problematic I withdraw the question. Thank you.

        • Patrick JW says:

          I’m currently in my tenure review period with my orchestra, so I’d prefer not to bring their name into this discussion, but thank you for your compliments. Hopefully in a few months I can speak a little more freely about where I play!

  4. I cannot see the point here. Many Brazilians usually scores every week for all major Premier league teams, much time before any Asian could do it. Actually concerning Football, few places can be so proud of his history. However there is just one Brazilian at Berlin Phi (Violin), and no one of than at Wiener, besides Nelson Freire as soloist. If it is just a matter of prejudice, why Wiener philharmoniker plays often with many Asian male and even females? Lang Lang even recorded all Chopin concerts with Mehta (Indian), and Liszt with Gergiev and the orchestra. Yo-Yo Ma had been there for a while, last time was recently on tour with Dudamel (Venezuelan). Kyung-Wha Chung played many times and recorded Beethoven and Brahms. Yuja Wang, Yundi, Imai etc all eligible. How many times Ozawa and Chung Myung-Whun conducted and recorded with Wiener Philarmoniker? As far as I know the most sold new year’s concert was 2002 by Ozawa. How many British conductors had been invited to conduct this concert? These Asians did it, because they are competent enough.

    Ozawa was MD of the Wiener Staatsoper for many years, and we would say that it is kind of the philharmoniker extension. How many Asians London had as Musical director of any major orchestra? How many at ROH? What a prejudice Londoners!

    • The administration of the Staatsoper selects the GMD, not the orchestra. The Director who selected Ozawa was Ion Holender, who is Jewish and sensitive to the issues of racism surrounding the orchestra. Many more details about Ozawa and the Staatsoper here:

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        And you think that if the evil racists in the Wiener Philharmoniker had had a “problem” with Ozawa, Holender could have appointed him over their heads? Fact is, Ozawa has been a regular guest in their – self-administrated – concerts since 1970, they have recorded and toured with him extensively, they invited him to do the most Viennese thing of all, the New Year’s Concert. So all of that is really just nonsense. There are many “non-white” or Jewish conductors who have had extensive relationships with the orchestra, Ozawa, Mehta, Maazel, Levine, Solti, and perhaps most important of all, Bernstein.
        Racism and anti-semitism are very serious subjects and there are some worrying things going on in the right wing in Austria, but you are really just abusing that to gain attention for your own agenda and therefore trivializing this very important subject.

        • Once again Mr Schaffer obscure the distinction between hiring celebrated international conductors (for which there are many reasons in many areas, artistic, political, financial, and in terms of “face”) with issues of day to day employment and well-documented and the record of exclusionary hiring practices and public statements about the instrmental and orchestral competence of women, Asians, and other “non-Austrians.” But we already have learned from him here that 1) there is no subject about which the VPO can be criticized, and 2) only he determines what constitutes racism and anti-semitism. As “very serious” and “very important” subjects, the comments of others are “trivializing.” And now we are reminded, too, of the old game played throughout Europe, although by no means limited to Europe, that if there is any trouble in these areas, it involves “worrying things going on in the right wing,” and never among good people, liberals or cosnvervatives, or long-established and untouchable institutions.

        • The VPO’s discrimination against Asians is well-known. For those interested there is documentation in my article “Symphony Orchestras and Artist-Prophets: Cultural Isomorphism and the Allocation of Power in Music” in Leonardo Music Journal published by the M.I.T. Press. You can read it here:

          There are many other articles about the orchestra’s exclusion of Asians. A good example is Joshua Kosman’s recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Vienna Philharmonic Must Answer for Exclusion.” Those interested can read it here:

          Ozawa conducted the 2002 New Years. It was exploited for public relations purposes. The orchestra has long used controlled relationships with outsiders to enhance its image. I provide details in my article “Ozawa Conducts the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Years Concert: Tokenism and Public Relations.” It can be read here:

          At about the same time, the orchestra also performed Beethoven’s Ninth in the Mauthausen concentration camp in another widely criticized public relations effort. The details are also discussed in the above article.

          Forgive me if I do not discuss this further with Mr. Schaeffer. He regularly subjects his conversation partners to personal abuse. I’m not interested in discussions on that level. My wife and I also leave tomorrow for a tour where we will be in residence at eight universities for concerts, talks, and master classes. Many of our talks address gender and racial issues in orchestras. I will have very little time for comments on SD for the next month, though I hope there will be meaningful discussion of the report the VPO is scheduled to place on its website on March 12 about its Nazi past.

  5. How depressing and how typical — Pseudonymous commenters defend the exclusion of women, Asians, and Jews (“Russians”) from the Vienna Philharmonic on grounds of excellence. Beyond absurd. If merit is the criterion — and it should be — audition with the screen. As it’s not, they don’t. The idea, too, that “they don’t need to change anything” is absurd doubly: Any ensemble can be better than it is and the VPO is certainly not consistently at the top of its game these days. Perhaps we can all ship these charming folks some bananas which they could toss at Black footballers in the name of “tradition” and their peculiar version of “merit.” Ugh.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Nobody here talked about or “defended” the exclusion of Jews or “Russians”s, as you put it. Where did that come from?
      Fact is, since the fall of the Eastern Block, the WP have recruited a fairly large number of musicians from Eastern Europe, from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia etc. Traditionally, many players in the orchestra had come from the “hinterlands” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but during the Cold War, they were deprived of those human resources. Now they are available again, and in many of those areas, they have retained the kind of traditional playing style, especially when it comes to string playing, that is exactly what the WP are looking for. And they are as much consistently “at the top of the game” these days as any orchestra. Everything I have heard from them recently strongly confirms that.

      • The point Mr Schaffer was the exclusion of *anyone* based on anything other than merit. And in fact you mention nothing about Russians in your examples. And I said nothing about “hinterlanders” being excluded. Please, the idea of the water that was drunk in the former Monarchie creating a magic stream into later generations . . . Again, if “the kind of traditional playing style” is what “the WP are looking for” then it should certainly be apparent behind the screen and from people regardless of gender, “race,” or national residence or ethnic origin. It would, in fact be a “win-win” situation for the august ensemble — they would still get the type of players and sound that they want and they could end the chorus of criticism once and for all! And if you find that they are playing at the top of *their* (as I wrote, not “the”) game these days, well good for them and good for you! Thanks.

    • Andrew,
      When Dudamel said that he won’t return to Israel, due to the way he had been treated at the airport. Is it racism against Venezuelans? Or We should accept it as something necessary for security purposes? Who are the best footballers? The black ones, no doubt. Do you feel any prejudice against white people on this affirmation? I don’t. However Argentinians feel it is pure prejudice, since for then Maradona is by far the best ever. In fact, for Argentina there weren’t good black footballer, but they are just talking about football. They don’t think it is prejudice. Actually concerning Basketball they agree about black players been the best players always. It is not Beyond absurd, it is just beyond each person’s cultural background and mind boundaries.

      There are many top-notch orchestras. I don’t think Robert Chen or David kim would like to move to such similar key position of Albena Danailova, a woman from Bulgaria. The 149 positions of VPO do not make too much difference to great musicians, but just for rancor people.

      Ps. Rgiarola is Roberto Giarola – No Pseudonymous.

      • Thank you, Roberto Giarola. I don’t follow tha analogy with Gustavo Dudamel’s treatment. It appeared to me at the time that he was being treated inappropriately as some sort of foolish response to the political views of the president of his home country, Venezuela. I think we can leave the decisions of musicians about whether to audition or to accept offers from individual orchestras to those musicians. Yasuhito Sugiyama chose to audition for and accept an offer from Vienna and after they foolishly booted him out he chose to audition for and accept the principal’s chair (tuba/Tuba) from the Cleveland Orchestra where we can all be sure he is handsomely compensated. In the end Vienna’s actions led to a loss for Vienna, not for Mr Sugiyama. Cultural backgrounds and mind boundaries are exactly what the arts help us to confront, understand, and stretch, yes. And I would *never* enter into a discussion from *any* side as to how Argentineans feel about *any* aspect of football! {grin}

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          How do you know Mr Sugiyama was “foolishly booted out” by the WP? He won his audition and he was offered a probation period so the fact that he is “non-Caucasian” obviously didn’t play a role. But apparently, it was decided after his probation period that he wasn’t quite good enough for the orchestra. Who are you to say it was the wrong, even a “foolish” decision? They currently have two very good tuba players, so how is that “a loss” for Vienna? I suspect Mr Sugiyama isn’t too unhappy either with how things have turned out for him, after all, the Cleveland Orchestra is a very good, and as you have pointed out, well paid orchestra. Of course, there is also the matter of it being in located in…Cleveland, a city which has only a fraction of the quality of life to offer that Vienna has. But it’s obviously his decision if he wants to live in the “mistake on the lake” or not….

          • It’s really not worth responding to these “who are you”s, sir. Should I say “Who are you to . . . ?” etc. The well-known racial nonsense that led to Mr Sugiyama’s departure from Vienna and the cracks about both the Cleveland (a great orchestra, not a “very good” one — and not one that goes about handing out principal positions for the most competitive positions *in highly subscribed initially blind auditions* to people who are “not quite good enough” for the Vienna Phil.) and the city of Cleveland require no further comment. I sat with members of the Vienna Philharmonic at Salzburg in the Haus für Mozart in August of 2008 when the Cleveland played “Rusalka” there over the protests of the VPO. I can assure you that what they heard and what they said after they heard it had no connection with your comparisons above. Thank you.

          • f you are a black person in Vienna you can run into some serious problems with your quality of life. In the provinces its even worse – in some cases dangerous. On the other hand, I wouldn’t defend America’s decimation of its cities for a second. Why these nationalistic attitudes?

            Sugiyama was fired because they said his sound wasn’t right – a very subjective and questionable evaluation bound to meet with suspicion given the orchestra’s traditional attitude toward Asians. More about the Sugiyama incident here:


            More about the orchestra’s history of racism here:


            The orchestra now has three half-Asian members with German family names, two of whom clearly have Asian features. I hope this is a sign that the orchestra is slowly changing, but this process won’t be complete until the orchestra hires its first fully Asian member with an Asian family name. This will signal an end of the long-term discrimination toward the countless Asian musicians who study and have studied in Vienna.

          • In reference to the following:

            “has only a fraction of the quality of life to offer that Vienna has”

            What Vienna has to offer in terms of it’s “quality of life” depends much more on the country and culture of origin of it’s residents than on any other particular quality of the real estate. The Viennese are the most xenophobic people with whom I have ever interacted – I say this as someone who has traveled extensively and know the difference between living amongst a people as a tourist and doing so as a resident. Once a person ventures beyond the ersten bezirk (and those few spots beyond frequented often by tourists) the harsh reality is that the Viennese are extremely intolerant to any and all “outsiders”.

          • I’m very sorry to have missed this 2011-12 exhibition in Vienna. This seems a very balanced account in The Economist:

            Angelo Soliman: An exceptional life, an ignominious death, November 23rd, 2011:


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