Silencing the Future: Will We Lose the RSO?

A restructuring at the ORF threatens the existence of Vienna’s most dynamic and forward-looking symphony orchestra

On The Town | Cynthia Peck | September 2009

The Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, with principal conductor Bertrand de Billy and its 97 members, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season, forty years of dynamic, often daring programming.

Nevertheless, financial problems within the ORF (the Austrian national public broadcaster) have recently threatened to disband the orchestra or force it to become independent, finding support from private or other sponsors.

The situation is full of ironies: For one thing, the orchestra’s annual funding of about €10.3 million comprises only 0.8% of the entire ORF budget. And despite not having a marketing budget per se, the orchestra has earned an ever-larger percentage of its own up-keep: in just the last five years the orchestra’s intake increased 63%, from €730,000 to €1.167 million.

Plans to discontinue the orchestra’s direct ties to the broadcasting company have been considered, to remove it from the operating budget of the ORF, so to speak, within the next three years. Still, no clear-cut plans have been made about future financing, management or marketing, nor have any guarantees been made as to how the orchestra is to maintain its focus of forty years: performing "the music of the future."

"This orchestra has given a needed color to the musical life in Austria," writes conductor Kent Nagano, "needed so that it will not be considered merely clinging to tradition and convention." It is one thing to be a master of classical repertoire, it is another to constantly read and interpret works heard for the first time. The orchestra’s motto, "the music of the future is already ours," gives us a taste of what the coming season is offering: Fourteen world or Austrian premieres.

There are five major orchestras in and near Vienna, but the RSO is the most versatile. It has regular concert series in both the Konzerthaus and the Musikverein; it serves as one of the opera orchestras for the Theater an der Wien; it gives guest performances at festivals like the Salzburger Festspiele and Wien Modern; it makes recordings for the ORF and produces CDs; and it is a major component of the radio Ö1 broadcasts.

If only considering Theater an der Wien, where the RSO has gained increasing respect in the five or six productions a year it has performed in since the house began presenting serious opera in 2007, it would be difficult to imagine a replacement.

For the Theater an der Wien, there is no question. The RSO "has been a decisive factor in the success that Vienna’s new opera house has enjoyed up to now," says Roland Geyer, the theater’s music director. Or for the performances of "Christmas in Vienna," with the RSO, the Vienna Choir Boys and a cast of international opera stars. Since its founding 17 years ago by Placido Domingo, the December 20th concert is slowly gaining a world-wide television following that may soon rival the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert. VIP seats can be had for €379.40, which certainly puts this concert in the top range of what Vienna has to offer.

It is the only symphony orchestra in Austria that regularly performs and records compositions by living composers and modern classic works of the 20th century, as well as seldom-performed pieces of the past, while maintaining a quality level rarely found anywhere. Markus Hinterhäuser, artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, when reflecting on the RSO and the 40 years it has been a part of the festival, writes, "It was already clear in its first performance [at the Festival] in 1970, with works by A. Webern, G. Ligeti, F. Cerha and P. Boulez, that this ensemble would enrich the Festival’s great variety."

And when the RSO does play Beethoven or Mozart, it provides a special interpretation; it has, you might say, a sound fingerprint of its own. It is clear and translucent, aware of tone color and rhythmically precise, agile and alert.

"The RSO has achieved its own highly successful interpretations of the symphonic repertoire," writes Bernhard Kerres, the director and CEO at the Konzerthaus, where the RSO will play 12 concerts in the coming season, "which enriches our concert program."

To many at the heart of the Austrian music scene, the RSO is irreplaceable.

"It is an absolute obligation for those who are responsible in this country for culture politics to ensure that it [the RSO] continues to exist at its current high level of excellence," writes Friedrich Cerha, perhaps Austria’s most famous living composer.

Internationally, the RSO’s reputation is also well established, and a decision to pull the plug would be an international statement about the value of culture in Austria: that even in a country that prides itself in (and lives off) its treasures of art and music, financial shortsightedness will have taken the upper hand. "We do not understand how it is possible, we are angry that the only radio symphony orchestra in Austria… can fall victim to shabby financial interests," writes the executive board of directors of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hamburg.

Leaving the orchestra "free" to its own resources could very well force it to become another pick-up group catering to uninformed tourists and package weekends. Young, talented musicians auditioning for a permanent job will not even consider an orchestra that cannot guarantee a future. As Geyer says, "Such high repute and quality does not carry on by itself; it is obvious that it must be constantly reinforced and supported, and this demands that the existence of the orchestra be absolutely secure."

And indeed the future of music in Austria is an essential part of its future altogether:  "Not making any investments in the cultural future of our country also means not wanting to take any responsibility for the future," write Zdenka Infeld and Walter Göth, managers of the Thomastik-Infeld violin string company in Vienna, which produces strings that are used by the best musicians all over the world.

To much of musical Vienna, the RSO is a treasure that must not be squandered. Support has also come from fellow musicians abroad. A petition from the Deutsch Orchestervereinigung (the German Orchestra Association), was signed in May 2009 by representatives from 150 German orchestras, including the 12 German radio orchestras. It reads in part: "We request that those who are responsible at the ORF and the Austrian government to do all they possibly can to preserve the RSO. (…) The international reputation of Austria, the grand country of classical music, its international good name, which is also based on famous composers, performers and its orchestras, would suffer irreparable serious damage. The Austrian broadcasting company must not silence its own musical voice."


To be continued...

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

An online petition to save the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra can be found at:

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