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"See you in Birmingham!" – the Mirga revolution

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla might turn out to be one of the artists who define our century, argues Richard Bratby.

© Benjamin Ealovega

I first heard of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla the way one hears about all the most exciting things in musical life – by word of mouth. In the summer of 2015 Andris Nelsons had just stood down as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and it was generally understood that anyone who appeared in front of the orchestra might be in the running to succeed him. But I missed Gražinytė-Tyla's debut – a curious-looking programme of Tchaikovsky, Barber (Knoxville) and Beethoven's Seventh – and was surprised when fellow concertgoers started talking to me about the concert. "Now that was something special," commented an ex-Board member. "We've got to hear her again," another regular insisted. And then the clincher. A member of the orchestra took me aside during an interval at Symphony Hall: "She's the best conductor we've had since Andris."

Even at that point, the bare facts of Gražinytė-Tyla's career were fairly readily established. She was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, and there was never a time when she wasn't surrounded by music. Her father was a choral conductor and her mother a pianist. She experimented with violin and percussion before focussing on singing, and later choral conducting – studying in Graz, Bologna and Leipzig. It was Wolfgang Bozic, in Graz, who turned her towards orchestral conducting and a masterclass with Herbert Blomstedt that encouraged her to enter the 2012 Nestlé and Salzburg Young Conductors Competition. She won first place. That led to opera house jobs in Heidelberg and Bern, a Dudamel Fellowship in Los Angeles, and, from 2015 to 2017, the post of Kapellmeister at the Landestheater Salzburg. Somewhere along the way (it feels intrusive to ask her for specifics), she added "Tyla" to her surname: the Lithuanian word for "silence".

That isn't, perhaps, the word you might initially associate with her. In conversation, she's usually animated and inquisitive. Her podium manner is simultaneously balletic and ebullient, and her urge to communicate is often irrepressible – "See you in Birmingham!" she yelled at a startled Royal Albert Hall audience at the end of her first ever BBC Prom with the CBSO in August 2016. And, since she was appointed music director in Birmingham in 2016, the media hubbub has almost threatened to drown out her musical achievements. If the sight of a superbly gifted young woman in a high-profile musical leadership role has been a gift to publicists, it's also prompted something of a backlash from the legitimately sceptical (and no one ever considered a conductor in their early 30s to be a finished product) as well as the outright cynical, not to say misogynistic.

© Frans Jansen

In truth, it's not an issue that she chooses to dwell upon. "I can see the status of women in conducting and in the world is an important one," she told the Daily Telegraph in 2016. "But when I am standing in front of an orchestra the question disappears." She says her sex has never hindered her career; and indeed in Birmingham – where the orchestra has had female members, and Board members, since it was founded in 1920 – the issue was not even discussed when the CBSO's players took the decision to offer her the role.

And it was the players' decision. That's how it's been done in Birmingham ever since the appointment of the 25-year-old Simon Rattle in 1980. The musicians reach a consensus; the management backs that decision. Suggestions that Gražinytė-Tyla was appointed at the behest of PR firms, or to fulfil some extra-musical agenda, are embarrassingly wide of the mark, and contradict the collective judgement of 90 top-flight musicians who, over the last four decades, have discovered and worked under Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons. Birmingham's enthusiasm for progress (the civic motto is "Forward") has occasionally been the butt of jokes in the UK, and has led to the occasional architectural misfire. But few British cities have a more firm sense of who they are, and what they want. 

That makes for fertile artistic soil. Birmingham is bigger than Amsterdam or Cologne, yet it has only one symphony orchestra, and when the audience decides it likes a particular music director, it supports them like the captain of a football team. With that backing, Rattle was able to redefine the role of an orchestra in a modern city – and on a purely musical level, to introduce Boulez, Henze, Takemitsu and Stockhausen to Birmingham. 

© Benjamin Ealovega

Four decades on, Gražinytė-Tyla's programming is just as personal. Her first season included works by the Lithuanian Raminta Šerkšnytė, Tippett's Piano Concerto and Hans Abrahamsen's …let me tell you…, as well as a concert performance of Idomeneo. Subsequent seasons have found her hurling herself and her orchestra at teeming, post-modern orchestral frescos such as Jörg Widmann's Babylon Suite and Walton's almost completely neglected (even in the UK) Troilus and Cressida suite. She has an ear for colour, for living detail, as well as the long organic line that makes these pieces take wing.

Gražinytė-Tyla's concerts are acts of storytelling, with surprises. The advertised programme might promise Beethoven's Fifth – but Mirga, unannounced, prefaces Beethoven's opening hammer blow with the stately sorrow of Purcell's Funeral Music. Quick as a flash, a Ligeti encore – the Concert Românesc – follows Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and a packed Symphony Hall rises, cheering, for music that few if any of the audience would necessarily have chosen to listen to. For the UK premiere of Čiurlionis's The Sea, Gražinytė-Tyla recruited the artist Norman Perryman to create kinetic watercolours in real time, projected on massive screens. Or she simply stands in the middle of her players, smiling, and giving only the lightest occasional gestures, as the CBSO's principals savour the solo variations of Haydn's Symphony No.31. 

It's all about the live occasion; about building – and feeling – that three-way bond between orchestra, conductor and audience. In Birmingham, Simon Rattle talked about "making every concert an adventure", and Gražinytė-Tyla, you sense, is driven by a similar impulse. And yet there's more here than simply putting on a good show. Gražinytė-Tyla's ability to energise an orchestra is perhaps less fundamental than her sense of place: of being a musician in a community. 

It turns out that the instincts of friendship, groundedness and collaboration that she acquired as a girl chorister in Vilnius are just as transformative in Birmingham – a multicultural, post-industrial city of 1.2 million. Gražinytė-Tyla's sense of music as something shared has seen her working with the CBSO's youth orchestra, with the city's Conservatoire and with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. She's taken a symphony by the mid-century Birmingham composer Ruth Gipps on tour to Hamburg, and invited her friend and mentor Gidon Kremer ("we speak the same language," he says) for a weekend-long exploration of Mieczysław Weinberg, culminating in an overwhelming UK premiere of Weinberg's colossal 21st Symphony, the "Kaddish". 

That performance has since been issued by Deutsche Grammophon – the CBSO's first appearance on the yellow label, and Mirga's too (she sings the symphony's soprano solo herself). Further discs are planned, and it's significant that the repertoire is not what an aspiring young conductor on a prestige label "should" be recording – the inevitable Mahler, Shostakovich or Beethoven – but what Gražinytė-Tyla feels that she needs to say. That means drawing upon her deepest-rooted musical relationships and convictions. Weinberg with Kremer. Music by Šerkšnytė, recorded at home in Vilnius with the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and Vilnius Municipal Choir. And the fruits of her deepening exploration of her new musical home in Birmingham, and its own heritage: Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem and Tippett's A Child of Our Time

It's a given that a conductor's musical growth is measured in decades, not individual seasons, but the results (so far, anyway) have been compelling: the local becomes global, and the personal becomes universal. That's why, simply by being who she is and doing what she does, Gražinytė-Tyla might yet turn out to be one of the artists who define our century. We've touched upon how lively she is in conversation. (On one occasion, seeing her backstage at Symphony Hall in a hooded sweatshirt and bouncing on her toes, I mistook her for a member of the CBSO's youth chorus). 

But there's a point in any serious conversation with Gražinytė-Tyla – beyond her reminiscences of her grandmother, and her allusions to Dostoyevsky – where, almost imperceptibly (though always pleasantly) she closes the door and will go no further. That's the real "silence", one suspects; and of course, silence is the precondition for music. That shattering Weinberg might simply be the first recorded evidence of what that inner quiet has the potential to disclose. 

So yes, brush aside scepticism: occasionally optimism really is justified. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has described her career as "a journey": and when a conductor looks as far beyond the horizon as she does, there's no telling where that journey might take us.

Listen to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla's recordings on IDAGIO here

Richard Bratby · Published
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