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Vienna Philharmonic draws protesters

March 8, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Change does not come easily to the Vienna Philharmonic.

Eight days after admitting its first woman, there was the orchestra, up on stage at Carnegie Hall, not a female in sight.

Friday night’s program _ Beethoven’s Sixth and Fifth Symphonies, and his Egmont Overture as an encore _ didn’t require Anna Lelkes, the 57-year-old harpist admitted Feb. 27 by the self-governing musicians. That left 80 or so male colleagues in their tailcoats, gazing at the baton of conductor Daniel Barenboim.

So what the sellout crowd saw was a relic _ the last all-male major orchestra in the world.

``Testosterone is not an instrument,″ read one of the signs among the three dozen protesters on front of the auditorium on 57th Street.

Fifteen years after the Berlin Philharmonic _ Europe’s other premier orchestra _ dropped its sex barrier, the Vienna ensemble promises to follow suit. But the protesters are worried the 155-year-old Austrian institution won’t change its practices.

Mrs. Lelkes started playing with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1971, when the orchestra couldn’t find a suitable male harpist. But she was not listed in a program until a 1995 U.S. tour and was not allowed to become a voting member until the day before the orchestra embarked on its current concert swing to Paris; London; Costa Mesa, Calif.; and New York.

Auditions will be held in June for a tuba, a trumpet, a double bass and a solo viola. But while major U.S. orchestras place musicians behind screens during auditions to hide their identities, Vienna uses them only in the early rounds, leaving the musicians visible in the final rounds. Since that method of auditioning came into practice in the early 1970s, the percentage of women in the big five U.S. orchestras has climbed from 5 percent to about 25 percent.

So, for now, the Vienna _ which also supplies the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera _ is often a completely male body. Because many compositions do not require a harp, the only appearance by Mrs. Lelkus during three New York concerts will be Sunday, during Richard Strauss’ ``Ein Heldenleben.″

The sex of the musicians aside, the Vienna remains traditional in its interpretations of Beethoven. Both of the symphonies performed at Carnegie had their premieres at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on Dec. 22, 1808.

Barenboim, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, favored an expansive approach, allowing individual instruments to be heard even as they blended to form Vienna’s famous burnished sound.

He did this, however, at the expense of emotion. Only when the orchestra was playing at forte levels _ during the final movements of both symphonies _ did it produce the tension that makes for dramatic Beethoven.

The Vienna Philharmonic does not have a permanent music director, instead hiring the best conductors in the world. As a result, it bends its sound to the wishes of the musician on the podium, while never losing its traditional deep strings.

Some of Vienna’s musicians have complained that admitting women will change that dynamic, a claim most outsiders dismiss as nonsense. An institution that focuses on works of the 18th and 19th centuries clearly is having problems dealing with change in a society approaching the 21st.

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