Wunderkind or not, Vienna’s Amateur Orchestras Give you a Stage

A plethora of orchestras for non-professionals makes Vienna a paradise for amateur music

You took piano lessons and then you quit. The lessons were because of your mother, quitting was because it got boring. Such a shame! But luckily, many people still play instruments – despite moms and looming boredom – because they discovered the excitement of playing with others, be it in a rock band or a symphony orchestra.

Vienna has plenty of orchestras for people like that. Week after week, hundreds of non-professional musicians around the city pack up cellos, tubas, flutes and drum sticks and go off to rehearse. They find their way to church basements, community centers, school gyms or backstage at concert halls, and then spend a couple of hours in serious concentration. Just for the fun of it.

The sound of academia

One of the largest organizations of amateur music making is the Vienna University Philharmonie, with 900 members of all levels in 2 orchestras and 8 choirs making music from classical to pop, world music to jazz. Indian-born, Austrian trained conductor Vijay Upadhyaya has directed the Philharmonie since 1994, with an enthusiasm that he is able to pass on, it seems, to anyone. Under his baton, the Vienna University Philharmonic Orchestra often attacks major pieces that are considered nearly too difficult for many.

Nonetheless they are able to swim along for a once-in-a lifetime experience. Upadhyaya has a passion for huge musical events involving as many people as possible – Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, for example, with its gargantuan choir and giant brass and woodwind groups, as well as “the largest possible contingent of strings,” as ordered by the composer. Anyone can join – you are not required to work or study at the university – and it is possible to schedule an audition at most times of the year.

Other universities in Vienna also sponsor orchestras, including the Vienna University of Technology. The weekly rehearsals of the TU Orchester are usually held in the TU main building’s wonderful Kuppelsaal (Cupola Hall), four floors above the central entrance on Karlsplatz. The 10-meter-high ceiling rises on 200-year-old curving wooden beams, like the belly of a ship turned upside down. This imposing space inspires the orchestra members, who choose their repertoire together with their spunky conductor, Marta Gardolińska. Auditions are once a semester, with preference given, albeit not exclusively, to musicians somehow associated with the TU.

To become a member of the Academic Symphony Orchestra of the University of Economics, you don’t have to study business there – students at any university can take part, even exchange students. And after graduation, it is possible to keep playing. Auditions aren’t held on basic principle; interested musicians should just write an email, then come to a rehearsal. Low instruments are currently needed – viola, cello, double bass and trombone – and, Beethoven’s 9this on the program next spring.

amateur orchestras
© Andreas Friess

Ensembles for all seasons

Vienna’s oldest orchestra for amateur musicians is the Orchesterverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (that is, the Musikverein), founded in 1859 at a time when “amateurs” weren’t considered less important than “professionals.” The Musikverein – the organization, not the concert hall it runs – still supports its orchestra. Rehearsals are held at their iconic venue, and once a year they perform in the storied Goldener Saal (Golden Hall) of New Year’s concert fame. The Konzerthaus also sponsors an orchestra: the Wiener Konzertvereinigung, which performs three concerts a year, usually in March, June and December.

I have to catch my breath! The list of available ensembles continues: The Concentus21, the Wiener Tonkunstvereinigung and the Camerata Musica Wien are all large symphony orchestras that welcome anyone, as does the Akademischer Orchesterverein. The last, which also looks back on a history of more than 100 years, is currently looking for string players and percussionists.

Thirteen years ago, the Camerata Medica Wien was founded to resurrect the “Vienna Doctors’ Orchestra,” a renowned ensemble in the early 20th century. Playing under the motto “violins, not scalpels,” most of the members work in the health professions, including pharmacists. Many are also trained musicians – music and medicine having traditionally walked hand in hand in Vienna.

One more great little ensemble is the Vienna Klezmer Orchestra, initiated by Roman Grinberg, director of the Vienna Jewish Choir. They’re “not kosher,” meaning you don’t have to be Jewish to join. It has the advantage that even relative beginners are welcome: Grinberg, who creates jazzy and showy klezmer arrangements, simply writes a “tailor-made” part matching each player’s ability. But it does help if you can read music.

As an avid amateur violist friend told me, these cross-generational orchestras are great for “speed-friending,” giving you chances to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise get to know. And after rehearsals there is plenty of informal socializing.

But what if you quit the piano and never learned to play anything else? Lift up your voice! The Konzerthaus has a series of “Sing Along” concerts, from folk songs and Christmas carols to an audience-sung performance of Bach’s St. John Passion next March. And the city hosts more choirs than you can count. But that’s another story…


Philhar­mo­nie der Universität Wien
Orchestral rehearsals Mon 19:30-22:00

TU Orchester
Rehearsals Tue 19:30-21:30

Akademisches Symphonie Orchester der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien (University of Economics)
Rehearsals Tue 19:00-22:00

Orchesterverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde
Rehearsals Tue 19:15-22:00

Wiener Konzertvereinigung
Rehearsals Wed 19:00

Rehearsals Mon 19:30-21:30

Wiener Tonkunstvereinigung
Rehearsals Mon 19:30

Camerata Musica Wien
Rehearsals Wed 19:00-21:30

Akademische Orchesterverein
Rehearsals various evenings at 19:00

Camerata Medica Wien
Rehearsals Wed 19:30

Vienna Klezmer Orchestra
Rehearsals Mon 18:45-20:45

Konzerthaus “Sing Along” concerts
Oct 20, 21, 24

Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.

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