An hour’s drive from Vienna into Lower Austria brings you to the Wachau, home of Austria’s best vineyards. Among them is a grand estate owned by the Metternich family. Their name was made famous by the early 19th-century statesman who, as schoolboys learn, divided up the map of Europe post-Napoleon.
That founding Metternich was no friend of the liberal arts: he reckoned them subversive and his agents made life difficult for Schubert’s circle, throwing one of them in jail. But his descendants take a more enlightened view. And their estate, called Grafenegg, now hosts a major music festival where concerts happen in an auditorium open to the sky and stars: a magical experience on a summer night.
Unfortunately, summer nights in Lower Austria are unpredictable; and everything I heard at Grafenegg the other week, when it was lousy weather, was rescheduled indoors – to a concert hall built on the side of what was once the family riding school (as every home should have). Less charming than the outdoor version, it’s a better sound. And it flattered the visiting Orchestre national de France, whose programme under Christoph Eschenbach came over with unusual, unexpected strength and style. Best was a polished Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No 3, with Renaud Capuçon as soloist. And the Tchaikovsky Symphony No 5 that followed was full-blooded in a way that’s come to seem old fashioned now that everybody does Tchaikovsky-lite.
What I was mainly there for, though, was Ink Still Wet: a project Grafenegg created to address a universal problem faced by young composers. They don’t often get the chance to hear their music played by full-sized orchestras – or, if they do, it’s usually with someone else conducting who may not be sympathetic to their ideas. So this Ink/Wet venture gives a chosen group the opportunity of several days with Grafenegg’s orchestra-in-residence, the Tonkünstler, preparing brand new pieces under guidance and (the key ingredient) including lessons in conducting.
This year’s guide was the eminent composer Christian Jost, and the conducting tutor Martyn Brabbins – who had easy times of it because the scores proved disappointingly conventional. Nothing to frighten horses. But with that proviso, they were competent. And for the first time since the project started, they were all in competition with each other.
First prize went to an excitable 18-year-old American called Benjamin P Wenzelberg (I haven’t made this up), who wrote a spangly Hollywood-style piece. To my ears it was kitsch, but beautifully crafted with some strong ideas. I have a feeling that the name of Benjamin P Wenzelberg has staying power. Like Metternich, it won’t be easily forgotten.