Vienna Philharmonic in concert. Photo: Terry Linke.

A little over 133 years ago, Han Richter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the first performance of Johannes Brahms’ Second Symphony. Tomorrow night, the Vienna Phil conducted by Seymon Bychkov will play the same Brahms symphony in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

The Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world’s greatest orchestras for over 150 years, takes up a three-day residency on the UC Berkeley campus today. “There’s an electricity whenever you hear them play,” said Matías Tarnopolsky, Director of Cal Performances, which is hosting the orchestra. “Over three days people have the chance to hear different personalities of the same ensemble.”

The Berkeley performances mark the start of the orchestra’s West Coast tour, its first in 24 years. After a visit to rainy Napa Valley yesterday, the orchestra gets down to work this morning with a rehearsal, open to university music students. The orchestra performs tonight at 8 p.m. in Zellerbach, with a program of Schubert, Wagner and Bartok.

On Saturday, section leaders will hold a number of masterclasses for Cal students before taking to the Zellerbach stage again with Brahms and Schumann at 8 p.m. Sunday morning,  musicians from the orchestra will give a private chamber music concert at Hertz Hall for young musicians from throughout the Bay Area. The visit ends with a 3 p.m. performance of Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Mahler was once principal conductor of the orchestra. There are pre-performance talks before each of the concerts. At time of writing, there were still a few tickets available for all three concerts.

Tarnopolsky plans to make an orchestral residency a regular part of Cal Performances’ programs in coming years. “We have an already vibrant orchestral life here,” he said, mentioning the San Francisco Symphony, as well as respected East Bay ensembles. “The idea of a residency is to bring something distinctive to our area.”

The Vienna Philharmonic has been surrounded by controversy in recent years for its conservatism. Like a number of other iconic European orchestras, it is run by the players. Admission to membership in the orchestra only comes after at least three years playing in the Vienna State Opera orchestra (itself a great ensemble). The first woman member of the orchestra was only appointed in 1997 and today there are still only four women members. Non-whites are also hardly represented: there is one half-Asian member of the orchestra.

The Berlin Philharmonic, the orchestra most likely to be mentioned in the same breath as Vienna, first hired women only in 1983, and the number has creeped up to over 10% of the ensemble (even with the very progressive Simon Rattle as principal conductor). Berlin has a number of Asian musicians.

Lance Knobel

Lance Knobel (co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine in Britain,...

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  1. The Vienna Philharmonic is exactly that. It is not a “world orchestra” but rather and ensemble representing Vienna, its traditions, its people and its culture. Who are we to impose our ideas about ethnicity and gender equality on a world renowned Viennese organization? What’s next -are we going to also going to boycott the Vienna Boys Choir because they don’t represent both genders and the faces of every continent? Don’t we still have our own struggles to cope with? It would be the same as if Austrians questioned why our congress has far less women represented than any other first-world country, or why in the 21st Century we still have the death penalty. The Vienna Philharmonic is figuring out their own very complex situation that has little to do with that of other orchestras (they work three times more than any other orchestra as they perform at the opera 300 times per year – not including tours, subscription concerts etc.) and don’t need our opinions filled with double standards. They are very judicious as to who fits into the team and who doesn’t – and when they fit in (like an American trombonist from Tennessee or a Bulgarian Concertmaster – a woman) then they are embraced as colleagues representing the special Viennese sound and musical tradition. Just enjoy the fact that they fill a unique void in a world where orchestras are sounding more and more alike.