Related topics

Lone Woman Finds Tough Life in Vienna Philharmonic

April 5, 1995

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ For harpist Anna Lelkes, the Vienna Philharmonic’s latest tour at Carnegie Hall brought a bouquet few outsiders can appreciate. Finally _ after 25 years with the orchestra _ her name appeared on the program.

``I don’t know how that happened. But I know it was a kick I’m not going to forget anytime soon!″ Mrs. Lelkes says, still cherishing her triumph weeks after the March trip.

People intimate with Vienna’s music world understand her joy. The Vienna Philharmonic’s main harpist has never been on the program because she isn’t a formal member.

The problem? She’s a woman.

In its 153 years, the Philharmonic never has admitted women as member musicians, who vote on setting Philharmonic policy. The orchestra wasn’t swayed when the rival Berlin Philharmonic shattered tradition in 1982 by hiring its first woman.

With good male harpists a rarity, Mrs. Lelkes won an audition when she was invited to try out in 1970. Since then, she has played full-time with one of the world’s best orchestras, under conducting legends like Sir Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Ricardo Muti.

But although she shares the music load with her 149 male colleagues, and receives the same pay, she is barred from their club.

She can’t expect support from conservative Viennese audiences.

``Admit women?″ asked Elfriede Semmler, a fur-clad matron in her late 60s, as she left the gold leaf and marble Musikverein hall after a recent concert. ``That would mean the end of an important Vienna institution. I’m against it!″

Most orchestra members acknowledge that quality musicianship has nothing to do with gender. But they, too, invoke tradition, and some offer reasons sure to anger supporters of equality for women.

``Whenever there are women, there are always cabals and intrigues,″ said Otto Nessizius, a violinist who retired in 1987 but fills in for sick members. ``That doesn’t happen with us men. We yell at each other to clear the air. There are no resentments that go on for years, like with women.″

Mrs. Lelkes recalls Austrian conductor Hans Swarowsky telling her in the early 1970s that ``Your place is in the kitchen.″

Bernstein, however, once called the orchestra bigoted for not fully integrating her.

Only her hands are shown on televised New Year’s concerts. The orchestra leadership refused a request to photograph her at rehearsal with the Philharmonic. They also wouldn’t comment on why her name was listed on the Carnegie Hall program along with the men.

The Philharmonic’s leaders are keen to deflect criticism. They told The Associated Press of an offer to the government to accept women as members if the state subsidized the extra costs.

Austrian maternity laws permit women to stay home for up to two years with pay. The leadership argues that without subsidies of up to $20 million a year, the Philharmonic would be crippled hiring substitutes for stay-at-home women.

With government money sparse, the offer has been refused.

Publicly, Mrs. Lelkes, 56, says her ``non-person″ status is a small price to pay for playing in the Vienna Philharmonic.

``I either respect the way they are, or if I don’t, it’s up to me to quit,″ she said during an interview in her living room overlooking the Vienna Woods. ``But where would I go? There is no other orchestra like this one!″

Even though other orchestras have women, Mrs. Lelkes is an apologist for male colleagues who argue that most women could not cope with the killing pace of tours, concerts, recordings and duty in the pit for the Vienna State Opera.

``Other women have no idea how hard and complicated this life is,″ she said. ``Any woman with a family cannot do this job. There is no room for a family! I was lucky that I was just getting divorced when I came here.″

Such sentiments fit the image of an institution that prides itself on having one foot firmly in the last century.

As a sop to modern attitudes, the orchestra leadership says it is working on giving Mrs. Lelkes ``special membership.″ But that promise is already three years old, and with the legal retirement age for women 60 _ five years earlier than men _ Mrs. Lelkes is not optimistic she’ll see it.

She places her hopes for breaking down the orchestra’s barriers in her successors.

``When I go, another woman will come,″ she said. ``It’s going to solve itself one way or the other.″

Update hourly