This is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO). Just moments into the performance, joy permeates every inch of his face. Yet, we notice something curious when the camera zooms out; Bernstein’s arms are folded across his chest. He is conducting the orchestra with just the unbridled enthusiasm found in his facial expressions.
Bernstein’s words reflect the feelings of joy found in that conducting experience as well. He called the VPO an ”unbelievable orchestra, which plays like one hundred angel-fingers growing out of my hands.” It’s no surprise that he can conduct without using his hands - they are so unified, so talented that Bernstein, like us, can just marvel at the sound. He is experiencing the same transcendent experience that audiences have marvelled at for over 175 years.
Classical Music, The Vienna Way
The Vienna Philharmonic is consistently recognized as one of the top 3 orchestras in the world. Their distinctive style is built on reedy woodwinds, mellow brass, and velvety strings. Zubin Mehta, a former conductor of the VPO, believes they have “never make an ugly sound,” despite, what he calls, an overall “organized sloppiness” in what they do.
The VPO’s music has reached across the world, and far beyond aficionados of classical music. Their sounds open 2001: A Space Odyssey, PBS features their Summer Night Concert from Schönbrunn Palace annually, and they boast being on one of the world’s most famous bullion coins.
Despite all of these successes, the Philharmonic has not escaped controversy. The VPO has an ugly history with ties to the Nazi party and have been accused of discrimination against women and minorities. In recent years, the VPO has faced these controversies head on and has begun making changes to how they operate.
Prior to March 28, 1842, Vienna had no professional concert orchestra. If an orchestra was needed, it was thrown together with a mix of professional and amateur players. In fact, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered with an ad hoc orchestra. It is baffling to think of Vienna, a city with an illustrious history of classical music, to lack its own orchestra.
In 1833, the Bavarian composer and conductor Franz Lachner laid the foundation for the VPO. He founded the Künstler-Verein, bringing a professional, organized orchestra to Vienna. Unfortunately, after only four concerts, the group disbanded.
Nine years later, a poet, a newspaper editor, a critic, a violinist, and a composer worked together to revive Lachner’s idea and formed the “Philharmonic Academy”. The Vienna Philharmonic was born.
The orchestra was fully independent, consisted of members of the Vienna State Opera, and made all of its decisions by a democratic vote of its members; it had its day-to-day management handled by a democratically elected body. These founding principles still apply today and are how the Philharmonic still operates.
Infusing Classical Music With Their Characteristic Sound
Not only does the orchestra maintain their guiding ideals to this day, they also strive to match their initial sound. It is characterized by gentle strings, glowing brass, and a blend across all instrumental sections - a sound that has been cultivated since the 19th century. That is what the Vienna Philharmonic offers more than anything else: tradition and excellence.
That tradition starts with how people are chosen to join the VPO. Members of the orchestra are selected from the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. This process is a long one, with each musician having to prove his or her capability for a minimum of three years’ playing for the opera and ballet. Once this is achieved, the musician can then ask the board of the Vienna Philharmonic to consider an application for a position in the orchestra.
This is the foundation of how the Philharmonic is formed and leads to their unified sound. Each player is immersed in the tradition for three years before they can even apply to join the VPO.
What does that produce? The first thing that strikes you about the Philharmonic is the singing quality of the string section. They are famous for the richness and depth of its string sound. Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic for the New York Times, describes how those signature strings make the listener feel, “the way the strings play tremolos is a wonder of the Western world. There was no sense of pressure being applied from bows to strings. The sound just emanated, as if from some cosmic place, and suddenly you became aware of it.”
Beyond the strings, the sound is further categorized by their judicious use of vibrato and the use of native instruments, such as Vienna horn or Vienna oboe.
The Pitfalls of Tradition
That desire to hold on to the foundations of the sound and ideals of the past has led the VPO to become entrenched in some practices that people have called discriminatory.
Critics call the VPO too white and too male, stating that “the Philharmonic’s maleness and whiteness seems to remain as inviolable a part of its identity as the liquid legato of its Vienna horn.”
In February of 1997, the Philharmonic voted to end its discrimination against women. It was a move seen as progress, but the pace of employing women was movied slow. In late December 2012, women made up just 6% of the VPO’s membership, compared to 14% in the Berlin Philharmonic, 30% in the London Symphony Orchestra, and 36% in the New York Philharmonic.
Critics say that the same negative hiring pattern emerge with race. The VPO is working to change these practices. In December of 2018, for the first time in its history, the Philharmonic has openened an academy to train musicians hands-on. Auditions were held in Lugano, Salzburg, Frankfurt; Budapest, and New York. This has widened their recruiting network with the hope of diversifying their membership.
Looking further back into their history, the VPO has acknowledged that they were not immune to dark history of Central Europe during WW2. The horror of the war and Nazism infiltrated the VPO. For an extended period, they refused to deal with their Nazi past, including very belatedly revoking an honour that had been given to Baldur von Schirach, the leader of the Hitler Youth.
In 2013, the VPO published the findings of three historians, who they hired to carry out an independent study of the VPO’s Nazi past. In was the first step in making amends with the horrors that occurred during that time and the role the Nazis played in the Philharmonic’s governance.
Classical Music That Needs To Be Experienced
Like most fine things in the world, you have to see it to believe it. The Philharmonic is no exception. For the most authentic VPO experience you have to look to Vienna itself.
Started in 2004, their annual Summer Concert has become the most popular way to see the Philharmonic. The free concert attracts 100,000 people to the Schönbrunn Palace. The backdrop of the palace and the summer air provide a classical music experience like no other.
The VPO also performs at Vienna’s New Year’s Concert. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1838. The demand for tickets is so high that people have to pre-register one year in advance in order to participate in the drawing of tickets for the following year. Good luck!
If travelling to Austria is not in your future, Calm Radio has the perfect destination for you: the Vienna Philharmonic channel. It features the sumptuous sounds of the VPO’s string section playing some of the most influential pieces of classical music, including works by Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Wagner, Johann Strauss, and more.
Put on your headphones and you’ll feel like you have been transported to the Musikverein. Happy listening!