Summer concerts in the park don’t get any better than this.
One of the joys of working in Vienna is leaving the office early on a Friday afternoon – except when everyone else has the same idea. Packed onto the sweltering platform at Spittelau amongst sweaty, grumbling office workers, I found myself begging for the air-conditioned train’s arrival to take me to the big summer season opening at Schloss Grafenegg. The first of 50 concerts to be held here between now and the middle of September, tonight’s big gala was to be centered around classic opera standards.
Less than an hour later, I was stepping off the train, Grafenegg’s spires stretching up ahead into the hazy amber sunlight. As I strolled towards them, the cool air and quiet ambiance were in stark contrast to Friday’s rush hour crowd.
The few people that passed us all greeted me warmly as I walked through the grand gates, passing the restaurant terrace and the auditorium, all modern in design but melding tactfully with the romantic architecture of the castle. Along the gravel path, the grounds opened up with fine floral arrangements and shrubberies, snaking through manicured lawns and ancient trees all the way up to the stunning castle and the Wolkenturm (Pillar of Clouds), monuments of the new and old worlds. The castle itself is one of most picturesque in Austria, the landscaped grounds reminiscent of the Glyndebourne Opera in England in their stately charm, though the event is more relaxed than the setting might have you believe.
The organizers are creating an alternative to formal Vienna concert houses: an escape just an hour’s drive from the city center with a loose dress code ranging from jeans to tuxedos. Though seats can go for over €100, you can recline along the grass verges beside the grand Wolkenturm for a mere €10, still enjoying excellent views and perfectly crisp sound, thanks to its phenomenal architecture. Besides, you can have your own picnic and a glass of the great local wine during the show.
As the setting sun blushed around the charcoal frame of the stage, the resident Tonkünstler Orchestra of Lower Austria and their conductor Yutaka Sado leapt into Tchaikovsky’s Cossack Dance. The first tremolo carried so startlingly well it could be felt right in your chest; I was immediately transfixed, only realizing afterwards I’d been grinning the entire time. As the applause died down and dusk gathered, the last birdsong was audible in the lull before the next piece.
The orchestra moved swiftly through their repertoire, from Mozart’s Don Giovanni to Puccini’s La Boheme, accompanied by the achingly beautiful young soprano Aida Garifullina and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the latter returning to the stage after overcoming a brain tumor in 2015.
The evening wind blew steady, cool and fragrant around the amphitheatre as Yutaka Sado whipped his ensemble into a crescendo. Suddenly, the first fireworks burst into the now obsidian sky as the Tonkünstler launched into Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance to rapturous applause. With this summer’s lineup including the much-heralded orchestras of St. Petersburg, Shanghai and Pittsburgh performing everything from Schubert to Ennio Morricone, these Friday afternoon escapes might have to become a regular thing.
Through September 10