Radio Symphony Orchestra: Playing for Time

‘A living voice of Austrian music’; Uncertainty lingers as the Radio Symphony Orchestra rallies for their survival at ORF

News | Cynthia Peck | October 2009

The perilous situation of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSO) continues and, if anything, is deepening, with threats of dissolution as early as January 2011, according to orchestra representatives. A critical meeting of the ORF (the Austrian national broadcasting station) supervisory board will take place on Nov. 5, for what is expected to be a discussion of options for restructuring in advance of an EU deadline of mid-December.

The station is shouldering a total deficit of €50 million, as reported by ORF general director Alexander Wrabetz in an interview in Die Presse on Sept. 25, and the station’s supervisory board has called for a reduction of €30 million by the end of the year. By year-end 2010, the budget must be balanced. Thus, means for economizing must be found; an easy package seems to be the RSO, which the ORF finances with about €9 million yearly, 90% of the orchestra’s budget.

To knowledgeable observers, they are killing the golden goose.

"These directors have no idea what they are doing," said impresario Walter Gürtelschmied, who described the orchestra as "better than the Vienna Symphony."

"With the RSO they have something that is really first class and that’s what they decide to get rid of."

As reported previously, the situation is full of ironies: For one thing, the orchestra’s funding comprises only 0.8% of the entire ORF budget. For another, the orchestra is making growing contributions to its own up-keep: in just the last five years the orchestra’s own intake has increased 63%, from €730,000 to €1.167 million.

However at the heart of the issue is the RSO’s role in the public mission of the ORF, of which it has been an integral part since the orchestra’s founding 40 years ago. Supported largely through ORF funds, it rehearses and records in the ORF studios, and provides regular live broadcasts in support of the station’s mission to be the living voice of Austria’s musical culture, past and present.

At issue here is a decision about the appropriate and best use of public cultural funds.

The Austrian national broadcaster is funded largely through a dedicated fee system, similar to the BBC’s and with a similar public service mission. Of the ORF’s total 2009 budget of €884 million listed on the station’s website (, approximately sixty percent comes from direct payments from its radio and TV audience and the rest is from advertising. These payments are compulsory by law, as they are in Britain, and are not voluntary as in the case of public broadcasters in the U.S. Thus, there are no fundraising weeks and no drumming up of subscriptions. And there is no question as to whether next year’s budget will exist or about its approximate size.

In return, the ORF, as all public radio stations in Europe, is subject to a national law (which must conform to EU law) that defines its purpose, that is, what sort of things it must broadcast. It is a "public service" broadcaster and thus, funded by the country’s citizens, it is required above all to broadcast programs that are relevant to Austria and/or educational: films produced in Austria or informative programs like "Universum."

According to statements at a special session of the Austrian Parliament on Sept. 17, €700 million are collected in Austria yearly for public broadcasting, of which €527 million go to the ORF. The rest goes to the federal government and the nine Austrian provincial governments to finance cultural activities.

However, part of the population is exempted from paying public broadcasting fees, including students, the handicapped and low-income households. This "lost" income, estimated at about €60 million a year, was subsidised by the federal government until 2001, when it became part of various budget cuts in a sweeping Sparpaket (Savings Package) enacted in part in response to the recession. The ORF is requesting the subsidies to be reinstated, which would resolve the budget deficit.

The Sept. 17 special session was called in the wake of new EU guidelines that require revisions to the ORF statutes by Dec. 18, last revised in 2001. A number of interested parties would like to see the new legislation as a means of getting certain programs securely defined as integral parts of the ORF, programs not specifically mentioned in the 2001 statutes. Among these are "Rat auf Draht", a crisis hot-line service for young people, and programs accessible to the deaf. One such program, "Wochenschau," which had simultaneous signing for the deaf, was cut at the beginning of September of this year, as reported in Die Presse, Aug. 20.

And many music lovers in Austria would also like to see the RSO firmly anchored in the new statutes, a goal high on the list for the orchestra’s representatives, who see the orchestra as intrinsic to the ORF’s cultural mission.

"To us, this goes without saying," says Geert Langelaar, a member of the orchestra and spokesman for the musicians. "The orchestra sees itself as an unambiguous part of the ORF’s obligation to provide Austrian culture for the Austrian people."

The ORF supervisory board, however, is considering disbanding the orchestra, or redefining it as some sort of subsidiary, withdrawing its current status as part of the ORF. They refer to a proposal by the national budget office based on 2003 recommendation of an outside consulting firm. But according to the orchestra’s representatives, the future ties between the ORF and the RSO  and the orchestra’s financial basis have been left vague.

"The RSO sees itself as a ball being tossed between the ORF and the politicians," says Geert Langelaar, a spokesman for the musicians.

At a press conference in Vienna on Sept. 11, organized by the orchestra’s representatives to present an online petition to save the RSO, the artistic directors of the Musikverein, the Konzerthaus, and the Theater an der Wien were all in attendance: All three consider the RSO an essential part of their programming.

"The RSO must be firmly anchored in the new ORF statutes," insisted Bernhard Kerres of the Konzerthaus, "so that these discussions can end." Dr. Thomas Angyan, artistic director at the Musikverein, reported that although he produces concerts with up to 40 international orchestras yearly, few of these ensembles play contemporary pieces, much less music by living Austrian composers.

"For the RSO, doing this is self-evident," Angyan said. "The Wien Modern festival could not exist without the RSO."  This year’s festival from Oct. 29 to Nov. 21, includes works by Austrian musical artists, composer/pianist, Bernhard Gander, early-music-turned-contemporary musician, Eva Reiter and progressive jazz/rock composer Philip Quehenberger.

Among the RSO’s strongest supporters is Roland Geyer, Artistic Director at the Theater an der Wien. He finds the focus on cost savings through the orchestra misplaced.

"The RSO is not at the core of the ORF’s problems. It has only 100 employees," he pointed out. "It is the ORF’s weakest part." Geyer has taken what is perhaps the most decisive step to ensure the survival of the RSO: He has hired it. The RSO is already booked at the Theater an der Wien through the 2012/13 season.

"The RSO takes part in one third of the productions at the Theater an der Wien," Geyer said. "The RSO doesn’t just play, it plays extraordinarily well. There are few orchestras in the world that master their task so spectacularly."

In April, a petition to save the RSO was posted online; within two days, 4,000 signatures had been collected; the tally is currently over 30,000. Prominent signatories include Placido Domingo, who writes, "I have worked on several occasions with the RSO, an orchestra of extraordinarily high standards…," and Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek: "An orchestra is not something you murder!"

Austrian pianist Paul Gulda was at the press conference representing and spoke not only for musicians in Austria, but also in the world at large.

"Our livelihoods are not directly threatened if the RSO is disbanded, but it will threaten the existence of musicians in general," he said. "A dam will have burst."

Music is a very demanding profession, requiring more years of training by far even than highly skilled disciplines like engineering, medicine or law. According to a German study in the 1990s, cited by Geoff Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated, on average the best violinists in the world have accumulated 7,410 hours of lifetime practice by the age of 18. It is the dedication of a lifetime, required in few other careers.

It is also less easily transferable: While in most professions a year or two is enough to find a new job, for an orchestra musician relocating is next to impossible. In Europe, orchestras generally do not hire after the age of 35. Once a member of an orchestra, a player necessarily dedicates his or her career to that particular group of musicians, fine-tuning their playing to that orchestra’s style, sound and repertoire. Thus disbanding an orchestra amounts to effectively destroying the careers of its members. They are left with few options beyond uncertain lives as free-lancers or teachers, or leaving the profession, negating all they have striven for since they were children.

Austrian essayist and author Robert Menasse pointed out the irony of the situation in commentary in Der Standard in September on cutbacks at Austrian cultural institutes abroad:

"If a culture nation has to save – where does it save? In culture. Where else?" he growled. "It doesn’t have anything else. That’s why it’s called a culture nation. If Austria were an economic power, it could save in the economy, if it were a military power, it could save on the military. But Austria is a culture nation."

The question remains whether the ORF supervisory board will indeed decide to simply disband the orchestra, or whether a solution can still be found. The orchestra hopes that the board will realize that they are not making merely a decision about a minor percentage of their running budget (0.8%), but that they are also making a decision about what Austria believes is important for its citizens and about the cultural identity of Austria at large.

"It would be a cultural disgrace if the Orchestra were to go under," said impresario Gürtelschmied. "And it is so unnecessary. The question is not whether [there is restructuring]; what’s important is under what conditions. And I have no confidence that the ORF directors even know where to begin.


For this season’s concert schedule and other information, see:

The online petition to save the RSO can be found at:

For the see the outcome of the petition, see the April 2011 TVR

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