Rhinegold Photo credit: Nancy Horowitz

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Mirga Mania

9:00, 1st June 2016

The Lithuanian conductor prompted a flurry of excitement when she was appointed as the CBSO’s music director. Katy Wright finds out more

The music director post with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has become one of the most prestigious positions in classical music. With Sir Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons all going on to great things, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment is the ultimate vote of confidence in the 29-year-old’s potential.

Gražinytė-Tyla first came to international attention winning the Nestlé and Salzburg Young Conductors Award in 2012. In the same year, she became a Dudamel fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she is now assistant conductor. Although she had previously held professional roles, it was with the LA Phil that Gražinytė-Tyla cut her teeth, gaining experience not only in conducting, but also in management, education and press. ‘It’s been an intense collaboration,’ she says. ‘I’ve spent three months in LA for more than three years, getting to know the orchestra, the musicians and Gustavo – his way of working, studying pieces, rehearsing, and performing.’

It took just two concerts for the CBSO to appoint her as music director, and the orchestra’s infatuation with Gražinytė-Tyla is mirrored in the way she speaks about the ensemble. ‘The orchestra has a very particular spirit,’ she says. ‘They’re very professional and they are – in the most positive sense – like a youth orchestra. Wherever I looked during a concert or rehearsal, I’d immediately find a pair of eyes. It was such a great characteristic, and it really shows the openness of the musicians. They are so receptive to what somebody can bring to them and what we can do together, and they really give their all.’

Gražinytė-Tyla repeatedly mentions the importance of teamwork, and emphasises the importance of a dialogue with the orchestra. The first conversation with members of the orchestra took place after her second concert with the ensemble, with several board members and chief executive Stephen Maddock also present. ‘I asked the musicians what they thought the next goal what the CBSO is and what they wanted from their music director. The first thing they said was inspiration. They expect the person standing in front of them to inspire them and bring them ideas about the music, what they can do together, and what the possible direction for the orchestra could be.’

'I can clearly remember the moment when I said that I could only imagine a job with music' Photo: Vern Evans
‘I can clearly remember the moment when I said that I could only imagine a job with music’
Photo: Vern Evans

The conductor was particularly taken by board member Charles Barwell’s suggestion that the orchestra’s goal should be to make Birmingham famous in the world because of the CBSO. ‘I think it’s a great goal to have and to work towards,’ she enthuses. ‘It doesn’t matter what level you’re at; it’s always about becoming even better and finding new things, and never being satisfied.’

Even if Gražinytė-Tyla was not taking on her first orchestral music directorship, it seems unlikely that she would be complacent. Even though her career has progressed quickly, she continues to ask increasingly more of herself. ‘I once participated in a competition for young choral conductors in Budapest, and after the ceremony the jury leader – who was a female conductor – came up to me and said, “Don’t try to imitate any male conductors.” I thought it was a really interesting idea, and since then I’ve always tried to remember it and to consider over and over again what that means, in terms of my personal style and how to balance who I am with the skills and technique necessary to lead the group.’

Surrounded by music from an early age, Gražinytė-Tyla could never imagine anything but a life in music. ‘Instead of going to kindergarten, my parents were taking me to their rehearsals, concerts, conducting lessons, my grandmother’s violin lessons and so on. It had a huge impact on me, and it meant that I couldn’t imagine life without being totally involved in music.’
Despite this background, though, a career as a conductor was far from inevitable. ‘I can clearly remember the moment when I said that I could only imagine a job with music and with people. My career as a conductor just happened. It was a subject I chose at school, and it has these two parts – music and people.’

Her repertoire for the upcoming CBSO season ranges from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (‘the best training for transparency, chamber music, and a very particular sound of the orchestra’) to contemporary repertoire, including a UK premiere by Lithuanian composer Raminta Šerkšnytė. Gražinytė-Tyla is particularly excited about Mozart’s Idomeneo: ‘The CBSO hasn’t played it for at least 30 years. None of the other Mozart operas have so many wonderful choruses; it’s the perfect piece for CBSO and its choristers.’

Since she was only appointed in February, Gražinytė-Tyla’s input into the 2016/17 programme has been limited. ‘The 2017/18 season will be the first time we plan together,’ she says. ‘We’ve got some great ideas.’ Ask whether there’s anything she’d particularly like to focus on and she mentions French repertoire. ‘The orchestra has been playing a lot of German and Russian repertoire over the last years, but not so much French,’ she says. ‘This is one of the areas I’d like to explore together, to find not only the favourites and most famous pieces, but also some lesser-known composers and works.’

What is the most important thing she has learnt? ‘I guess it’s to always continue and to keep going,’ she muses. ‘The only thing one can do is to try to do our best.’

1986 Born Lithuania
1999 First conducts a choir
2007 Graduates from the University of Music and Performing Arts, Graz
2011 Becomes second Kapellmeister at Theater Heidelberg
2012 Wins Nestlé and Salzburg Young Conductors Competition; becomes Gustavo Dudamel Fellow
2013 Becomes first Kapellmeister at Bern Opera
2014 Appointed LA Phil assistant conductor
2015 Named as music director with the Salzburger Landestheater; associate conductor with LA Phil
2016 Announced as next CBSO music director

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