Commentary: Conductor Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla has changed symphonic life

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla does what a conductor has to do. It beats the time with expected and needed sharpness. She shapes time too, shaping each phrase as if she were working with molten lead. When she’s wild, she’s very wild and excites an orchestra. When quiet, the music flows like a river, of its own accord, leaving a lasting impression of quiet awe.

She pays the necessary attention to instrumental balance. During her concerts with her stalwart City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at Costa Mesa’s Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Tuesday night and at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday night, Gražinyte-Tyla demonstrated an urgent preoccupation with the texture and power of sound. It could be an extraordinary solo clarinet revealing a moment of personal rapture, or a heavenly string section infusing a concert hall with the cathedral-like awe of shared spirituality. It could also be brass and percussion just blowing your mind.

She’s not the only one who can do it, although she’s one of the best at it. From the first time we saw her make her stellar Hollywood Bowl debut in 2014, having just been appointed Assistant Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, she displayed an overwhelming sense of confidence, determination and sheer joy. She was 28. Two years later she became music director of the Birmingham Orchestra, known for launching the great careers of its three previous music directors – Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons.

Birmingham made her a star too. This is her sixth and final season with the orchestra. She stepped down as Music Director last year but has been appointed Principal Guest Conductor for 2022-23. She could probably have any orchestra she wanted right now. But right now she doesn’t want any of them. She comes from a close-knit family of musicians in her hometown of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. She sees the orchestra as a family. She has her own family, her three young children (4, 2 and 4 months old) are traveling with her. They will have priority, and for the time being she will conduct as a guest where she wants and perform what she wants.

When it comes to the Birmingham Orchestra, the spirit of family encompasses how she views and directs its musicians and traditions. There may not be a player smaller than her, but on the podium her arms seem able to touch any musician, no matter how far away. Her gestures are expressive and sweeping, as if she’s not so much creating sounds as embracing them and those who make them.

This US tour was scheduled for 2020 as part of the orchestra’s centenary celebrations, now 102 years old, before the pandemic hit. Nonetheless, Gražinyte-Tyla honored the roots of one of Britain’s most important ensembles and, with a little luck on her side, was gifted another anniversary.

At the orchestra’s inaugural concert in 1920, Edward Elgar conducted his Cello Concerto, which he had just written. At Segerstrom, this was performed by Sheku Kanneh-Mason, another young star.

Britain’s other leading composer at the time, Ralph Vaughan Williams, also conducted Birmingham in his first season. Wednesday happened to be his 150th birthday, and his popular, anthemic “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” was played at both Segerstrom and Disney, although oddly the occasion was not mentioned.

Both programs ended with Debussy’s “La Mer”. But at Segerstrom, Gražinyte-Tyla recorded “Jewish Rhapsody” by Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. At Disney she conducted the West Coast premiere of Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel Symphony and Kanneh-Mason played Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1.

Coupled with a new recording featuring Gražinyte-Tyla conducting two Weinberg symphonies and his Flute Concerto, the two concertos in two very different instrumentations gave a vivid impression of what she has achieved with her first major orchestra of her own.

Segerstrom, which shares Russell Johnson’s acoustics with Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, gave perhaps the best impression of what the orchestra sounds like at home. But Gražinyte-Tyla spent five formative years — between 2012 (when she became a Dudamel Fellow) and 2017 (by which time she had risen to LA Phil’s assistant conductor) — in Disney’s more immediate acoustics.

A seated person plays the cello.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason performs Elgar’s concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at Segerstrom Hall on Tuesday.

(Drew A. Kelley/Orange County Philharmonic Society)

At Segerstrom, Birmingham flourished, roared and glowed. The Vaughan-Williams was terrific. A softness pervaded Elgar’s autumn concert. Kanneh-Mason’s cello had a beautiful richness. Gražinyte-Tyla is one of his earliest champions. They recorded Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in Birmingham in 2017, when the cellist was a teenager, for his first best-selling recording.

At Disney, where the link between musician and conductor is more immediate, the livelier Haydn concerto revealed Kanneh-Mason as virtuoso playful. Vaughan Williams’ birthday present was to take his Fantasia out of the church and into the concert hall, the magic lying in the exquisite sonic detail, particularly with strings backstage creating a sense of acoustic mystery.

However, the core of the two programs went beyond the acoustics. Born in 1919 (the year Elgar’s Cello Concerto was written and the final revision of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia), Weinberg emigrated to Soviet Russia when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. Though far less well known than his contemporaries Prokofiev and Shostakovich, he is beginning to be seen as his equal, and Gražinyte-Tyla is one of the leaders of his revival.

In a brief conversation with her before the concert, she told me that from the moment she heard about his music from violinist Gidon Kremer a few years ago, she had spoken to her and it had become her passion ever since. The “Jewish Rhapsody”, the second movement of “Festive Scenes for Orchestra”, written at the end of World War II, is a little-known work by a composer who wrote 22 symphonies, operas, plenty of chamber music, film scores and much more different.

This might therefore seem like a small 12 minute score. But Gražinyte-Tyla’s performance, from the hugely expressive instrumental solos (particularly that for the clarinet) to the impassioned orchestral outbursts, made it monumental. Her new recording of the whimsical Eleventh Symphony for harpsichord and strings and the gripping Third Symphony make Weinberg’s case all the more compelling. She said she plans to next conduct his powerful opera on the Holocaust, The Passenger, in Madrid in 2024.

Adès’ The Exterminating Angel Symphony features the craziest music from his latest opera, based on the Luis Buñuel film. ‘Berceuse’ (the third of the four movements) offers some nice respite from the operatic characters’ opening music, the silly waltzes and marches, but for the most part the score is delightful instrumental slapstick. Gražinyte-Tyla, who premiered the symphony in Birmingham last year, turned it into an exhausting celebration.

In her effort to make every orchestral moment matter, Gražinyte-Tyla goes controversially far in “La Mer”. She is never less than elegant in her gestures. At Disney in particular, there was a sophisticated elaboration of details and an initially airy atmosphere. But she’s not one to hold down a large orchestra. Debussy’s sensual evocations of the play of waves and the dialogue of wind and sea took on an aura of climate change. At the striking final climax, louder than any Debussy I have ever heard, a conductor who is a force of nature met Mother Nature.

But what really sets Gražinyte-Tyla apart from so many other musicians is their own nature. She puts music and family before career. She said that at the moment she can only devote herself to one family and still make music in her own way. At some point, she said with a smile before going off to check on her baby and prepare for the concert, she might have another family – and with it the orchestra. Commentary: Conductor Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla has changed symphonic life

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