Outdoor concerts at Schloß Grafenegg are the perfect setting for an ambrosial sound experience

My first summer job as a teenager was ushering at the Hollywood Bowl. In that exuberant L.A.-style classical music party, the Bowl’s huge white half dome was as iconic as the opening scenes of Disney’s 1940 classic Fantasia. I heard some of the greatest of the great, of course seriously amplified for the 17,000 picnicking revelers.

The summer around Vienna also offers myriad of events at outdoor venues; prominent among them are the classical music concerts at Schloß Grafenegg, forty-five minutes from town in one of the countryside’s most elegant backyards. The Schloß (castle) hosts performances every Saturday from the beginning of July until mid-August, followed by the Grafenegg Festival, which goes from August 18 into September.

Occasional public concerts began to be held at the privately owned estate in the early 1970s. Then just over a decade ago, pianist Rudolph Buchbinder decided to expand them into a real festival. His vision was to establish a series of concerts near Vienna with top-notch artists during the quiet summer months when the city’s concert halls are closed. The Grafenegg Festival was born.

Pillar of Clouds and Neo-Gothic Spires

Although Buchbinder has declared festival mottos anathema, Grafenegg does have a subtitle ‒ Klang trifft Kulisse ‒ which is translated as “sound meets scenery.” And the setting is indeed spectacular: An 80-acre English park, planted in part with botanical rarities, surrounding a huge castle, one of Austria’s most important historicist buildings.

In the 19th century, the original medieval structure was expanded in eclectic Gothic Revival style, becoming an archetype of romantic exaggeration, looking today the way every Disney-raised child dreams a castle should: filigree towers, lancet windows, steep gables covered with intricate stone carving, a dry moat. For the festival, a singular outdoor amphitheater was built in 2007, its stage the bizarrely balanced, building-block-inspired Wolkenturm.

This “pillar of clouds” is “an acoustically perfect open-air stage,” as Buchbinder describes it, “sound wrought in architecture.” Indeed, tone projection from the performance platform is remarkable: An afternoon visit to the park this spring (it is open to the public during the day) enabled me to conduct a private sound check. Speaking at normal volume at the back of the stage allowed my friend in an upper amphitheater seat to catch every word. According to a Grafenegg spokesperson, the Wolkenturm uses “natural acoustics,” which – if needed – are “discretely supported technically.”

Caviar, nectar and ambrosia

This summer’s line-up is certainly top-rank: concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic and Grafenegg’s resident ensemble, Lower Austria’s Tonkunstler Orchester, as well as orchestras from London, Prague, Munich, Pittsburgh and St. Petersburg. The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra will make their Grafenegg debut, playing with star violinist Maxim Vengerov.

A different composer-in-residence is featured annually; this year it’s American Brad Lubman. The final (free) concert of the “Ink Still Wet” program is on August 22.

But evenings aren’t the whole show: Late afternoons usually have “prélude” concerts in the castle courtyard, followed by pre-performance talks in the halls of the riding school.

In addition to the Wolkenturm amphitheater seats, there are hillside “lawn seats,” these very reasonably priced at €10. All under 26 pay half. If it rains (and it seems there is always a 40% chance of that in Austria), concerts move to an indoor auditorium. There is also a shuttle bus service from Vienna, leaving from the Musikverein.

When Fantasia premiered in Los Angeles, film critic Edwin Schallert wrote that it was “caviar to the general, ambrosia and nectar for the intelligentsia. It makes no compromises.” Grafenegg also has caviar and ambrosia qualities: Highest-level music-making by international stars. A gorgeous park that invites you with open arms for extended strolls. And on top of that, a lovely rustic wine Schank among the trees and a fine restaurant run by celebrated chef Toni Mörwald (that also provides picnic baskets).

Altogether, Schloß Grafenegg is a summer jewel: a perfect destination for a day of Sommerfrische (summer escape), followed by music under the stars.

Schloß Grafenegg Summer Concerts and Grafenegg Festival, July‒Sept. grafenegg.com