Winds of anticipation wafted through the hallowed halls of the Konzerthaus last Friday. The institution, in its efforts to breathe new life into old norms and appeal to a broader demographic is toying with a new format this season. On one Friday night per month the concert will begin half an hour earlier than normal and forgo an intermission in lieu of an informal performance in the foyer afterwards, where the audience is invited to get up close and personal with the artists and enjoy a glass of wine and a bite to eat while being free to move around the space, chat quietly and leave whenever they care to. For an institution like the Konzerthaus, it is a bold move and one for which they should be applauded. Tonight was their maiden voyage outside of the concert hall and though it may not be absolutely everyone’s cup of tea, it was an overwhelming success.

Khatia Buniatishvili © Julia Wesley
Khatia Buniatishvili
© Julia Wesley

The first part of the evening featured the Symphoniker under the impeccable baton of Philippe Jordan. Schubert’s Second Symphony opened the programme, a work full of the singing tunefulness associated with the godfather of song and loads of youthful energy. The Symphoniker came out swinging at a jaunty clip and gave a vibrantly impressive rendition of the work. The first and last movements fairly gleamed and skirted the poles of energy, speed, accuracy and stylistic norms with great skill. Jordan is beautiful to watch. His entire body language shifts in a heartbeat with alterations mood and color, and his gesture and intention are clear as crystal.

Khatia Buniatishvili, in a dazzling silver and black gown, then joined the ensemble to wow the audience with Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major. I’m not a fan of virtuosity for its own sake, but the young Georgian pianist was very much in her element here. Besides countless passages with hands fluttering across keys in a blur of speed, she demonstrated a sense of phrasing that was faultless and fresh as well as a variety of sounds, dynamics and colors. The movement’s opening arpeggios wafted upwards like delicate filigree with effortless facility, but what is truly impressive is that everything Buniatishvili played, regardless of how transparent, was rooted firmly in a beautiful, weighted sound and very convincing.

After enjoying Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, thereby completing the arc of Germanic vocal tradition which began with the Lied and culminated in operatic Gesamtkunstwerk, we headed down to the foyer, located refreshments from one of the three bars installed for the occasion and jostled for places to see what would happen next. The Vienna Symphony Jazz Project (VSJP), an 11 man ensemble of Symphoniker players with a jazz itch, set up quickly. After a cheeky arrangement of Also Sprach Zarathustra to give the situation appropriate gravitas, Buniatishvili and Jordan performed 4-hand piano music opening with an arrangement of Schubert’s Marche Militaire and moving through a potpourri of classics. The VSJP then finished off the evening with jazzy/big band arrangements of themes from Tannhäuser, Liszt’s Liebestraum and the Ravel Bolero.

Not everything went completely smoothly. There are technical issues that should be addressed if this is something the Konzerthaus wants to continue. Feedback from the sound system was an issue and the timing of both the formal concert half and the interval between the two parts of the evening should be tightened in order to avoid losing the audience or taxing bladders. That said, the concept is wonderful. Giving the audience closer access to performers may be a key to the survival of an ever-more-elitist entertainment form. Beyond that, I would wager that most people at the Konzerthaus tonight left much more relaxed than when they arrived. The audience steadily trickled out over the course of the evening without the standard push and shove at the coat check. It was a lovely, light way to let both music and audience linger a little bit longer in the warmth before drifting out into the night.