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White smoke at the CBSO: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla for Music Director | reviews, news & interviews

White smoke at the CBSO: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla for Music Director

White smoke at the CBSO: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla for Music Director

29-year-old Lithuanian conductor follows Andris Nelsons in Birmingham

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Birmingham players' delightPhilipp Zinniker

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's appointment of the Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla as its new Music Director won’t have surprised many concertgoers in Birmingham – or indeed regular readers of theartsdesk. The post has been vacant since Andris Nelsons’ premature departure in summer 2015, and the last few months in Birmingham have seen a string of concerts clearly intended as thinly-disguised auditions for conductors of various ages and nationalities.

But the buzz that developed after Gražinytė-Tyla’s short-notice CBSO debut last July was hard to ignore in Birmingham, and her return concert on 10 January – inserted at short notice outside of the CBSO’s main concert season – carried a dangerous weight of expectation. Happily, and despite a limited rehearsal period in an already busy week for the orchestra, the energy and colour of the orchestra’s music-making under Gražinytė-Tyla that afternoon proved more than enough to carry the day. On the strength of that concert alone, today’s announcement is cause for celebration.

Crystal-ball gazing at times like these is rarely wise, and a conductor-orchestra pairing is like any human relationship. It’s been a brief, excited courtship – though it’s worth remembering that this is the orchestra that appointed Andris Nelsons on the strength of one recording session and a 60-minute private concert, and Sakari Oramo and Simon Rattle on not much more than that. Although the CBSO is not a self-governing orchestra, the musicians traditionally have a powerful say in the search process, and an effective right of veto. It’s reasonable to assume that they’re overwhelmingly behind this appointment, and their form in picking young conductors to date (Gražinytė-Tyla is 29, Nelsons was 27 on his appointment; Oramo was 32 and Rattle was 24) inspires a lot of confidence.

Mirga Gražinytė-TylaTo an audience-member, at any rate, the connection between Gražinytė-Tyla (pictured right) and the orchestra seemed dazzlingly evident. She’s a musician with energy, intelligence and a bright, natural musicality. Artistic – if not financial – prizes are there to be claimed in Birmingham: three successive music directors have left the ensemble in superb shape and the brief Music Director-less period seems, if anything, to have refreshed the players. With a concert venue of genuine international quality (read it and weep, London), an artistic team that includes choral director Simon Halsey plus two excellent home-grown staff conductors – the impressive Michael Seal and rising star Alpesh Chauhan – and an audience that has shown itself willing to give sustained support to serious artistic vision, Gražinytė-Tyla, if she chooses, can build something remarkable.

And what that might be…well, it’ll certainly be fascinating to see. Gražinytė-Tyla’s recent programmes suggest tastes that lie somewhere between Oramo and Rattle: her CBSO debut made a surprisingly cogent sequence out of Tchaikovsky, Samuel Barber and Beethoven, and her Sibelius Four Lemminkaïnen Legends in January brought something arrestingly fresh to works which – for Oramo and Rattle’s old band – are practically warhorses. In Los Angeles, where she’s currently Associate Conductor, she’s conducted Weinberg and Shchedrin, and she’s already accrued a solid amount of experience in the opera pit. It’s to be hoped that she’ll do something about restoring the CBSO’s commitment to new music – Birmingham’s crowning glory under Rattle and Oramo, badly neglected by the Wagner-loving Nelsons.

But whatever she chooses to do, she’s an artist with something to say, who now has at her disposal an organisation that’s uniquely equipped to help her say it. For the immediate future, at least, there are exciting times ahead in Birmingham.

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