Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla interview: ‘When I think about recording, I feel a sense of responsibility about the fact that what we do stays there forever’

Richard Bratby Fri 24th May 2019

The CBSO’s conductor plans to share her discovery of lesser-known composers through some major recordings for DG – and when Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla puts her mind to something there’s no stopping her, writes Richard Bratby

Mirga Grainytė-Tyla (photo: Andreas Hechenberger / DG)

Mirga Grainytė-Tyla (photo: Andreas Hechenberger / DG)

The nice thing about being at CBSO Centre is that the people there can’t help being friendly. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s office and rehearsal building is just five minutes’ walk from Symphony Hall, and it packs a lot into a small space. Mirga Grainytė-Tyla is sitting in the cafe area that doubles as the musicians’ tea room, and as members of the orchestra and staff walk through, she greets each one with a smile and a wave. Music directors of major orchestras tend to be busy. She’s just come out of a planning meeting, and the next thing on her agenda (involving an even stricter deadline) is an appointment with her baby son. But for now, we’re talking about the morning in July 2015 when she met the CBSO for the very first time.

‘I will be blunt,’ she says. ‘We started with excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. It was the very last concert of the season, and I think the musicians were tired. I expected more in the first rehearsal. But there was something else, and it was very strong: they were making music as if they were a youth orchestra. There was this communication – a sense of “Ah! Let’s do this together!” And on the second day I thought, “Wow, this is where we start.” It was impressive how much they’d changed, the speed with which everybody worked. And in the concert, they gave more. They’d given a lot in rehearsal, but they gave more.’

The tale has already entered Birmingham orchestral folklore. The CBSO isn’t a player-run orchestra, but for four decades now it’s chosen its chief conductors by seeking a consensus between orchestra, audience and management, with the musicians having the decisive vote. An ensemble which in 1979 took a gamble on the 24-year-old Simon Rattle (and which still contains a few of the so-called ‘pre-Rattle-ites’ who made that far-reaching decision) has few preconceptions about the right sort of maestro: just a remarkably shrewd collective instinct. In 1997, they chose Sakari Oramo after he’d conducted just two concerts with the orchestra. In 2007, they plumped for the then-unknown Andris Nelsons after barely three rehearsals.

Mirga

(photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s first concert with the CBSO came just one week after the orchestra’s final concert with Nelsons – an emotional Beethoven Ninth at the BBC Proms. Six months later she was offered the job. But throughout that autumn, the buzz in the foyer at Symphony Hall and CBSO Centre left little doubt that the decision was as good as made. ‘By the time I got home after that first concert, I was already getting emails from members of the orchestra,’ recalls the CBSO’s chief executive Stephen Maddock. ‘“Sorry to bother you now, but we had the most amazing concert with Mirga”; “Everybody’s talking about it in the pub.”’

For all her outward enthusiasm, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is an artist who does nothing without careful thought. She was rehearsing a production of Carmen in her capacity as music director of the Landestheater in Salzburg when the call finally came through. ‘I had a touch of flu, I was in bed, and when I saw the phone ringing I thought, “I can’t take that message now,’’’ she says. ‘It was the next morning that we talked. I felt joy, of course, but also responsibility: taking on those incredible musicians and then thinking about the direction of the orchestra, its role in the city and everything. I thought, “Wow! This is a really huge thing to manage.”’

‘Birmingham has this wonderful heritage as a musical centre. So many stars of the past came here, and we must build on that’

Three years on, the relationship – and the philosophy that underlies it – is in full flower, with a new recording deal between Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Deutsche Grammophon. Unlike many UK orchestras, the CBSO has taken a conscious decision not to launch its own label, preferring instead to strike commercial deals that have allowed successive music directors to follow their instincts. Oramo recorded Sibelius and Foulds for Erato and Warner; Nelsons laid down Strauss tone poems on Orfeo. But even in 2019, a DG signing still carries a certain cachet. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla doesn’t seem remotely daunted by the prospect of joining Karajan and Abbado on the yellow label, though; in fact, she’s excited by the artistic freedom that DG is prepared to offer. Her first release is a pairing of symphonies by Weinberg.

Mirga

(photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

‘Repertoire-wise, at least, my hope is that we will be able to record some very special – maybe unknown – things. When I think about recording, I feel a sense of responsibility about the fact that what we do stays there forever. Maybe one day I can dream about recording Mahler, but right now I have a feeling that we already have so much of that sort of thing. There’s much less … let’s call it “need” for another Beethoven cycle, than there is for the discovery of Weinberg’s music.’

This won’t be her first major-label disc – that was the Decca recording (made in 2017; released 2018) of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto which went global after its soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, ending up, to general astonishment, at the top of US pop charts. But when Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla talks about Weinberg she leans forward and lights up. Weinberg is a passion inspired in part by her friendship with Gidon Kremer. It’s already borne fruit in a Weinberg Weekend in Birmingham in November 2018, during which Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted the combined forces of the CBSO and Kremerata Baltica in the UK premiere of Weinberg’s colossal 21st Symphony (Kaddish; 1991). Kremer perched among the CBSO’s second violins to play the symphony’s numerous solos, and that searing performance is captured on the new disc.

‘It started through Gidon,’ she agrees. ‘His passion for Weinberg came very late, even though he met Weinberg in Moscow and was present when the composer played one of his violin sonatas with Oistrakh on the violin. But Gidon says that at that time he was more passionate about Schnittke, Arvo Pärt and Sofia Gubaidulina, and underestimated Weinberg. He invited me to work with Kremerata Baltica, and in 2014 we did Weinberg’s First, Third and Fourth Chamber Symphonies. I was fascinated from the very beginning, but it’s only now, after having worked quite a bit on several pieces, that I’m beginning to appreciate the full quality of the whole of his huge output.

‘There is this big, big darkness in Weinberg’s music. You feel a helplessness in front of it, which you must confront’

‘Weinberg’s work is incredibly diverse. There are examples of the happiest music ever, and the most serious music conceivable. His skills as a composer are incredible: all the pieces I have studied and worked on so far have been incredibly challenging both for the players and for the conductor. Analysing a Weinberg score is a fantastic occupation because he uses every possible technique to connect and develop his themes. These techniques are never just used for the sake of it, but are always very much connected to a certain message he wants to convey.’

Mirga

(photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

There’s certainly no doubting the emotional impact of the 21st Symphony. ‘The symphony is a sonic monument for the tragedy of the 20th century. On the one hand, it’s an epic: his whole aim was to commemorate everyone who was lost. On the other hand, it is extremely personal, because in dedicating the symphony to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto, Weinberg was also dedicating it to his parents and sister, who were in the ghetto and died in the Holocaust. This is the other point that makes the piece so strong. It has a lot of very slow tempos: very quiet music, very intimate moments with a lot of solos and little chamber ensembles. And yet, with all of that, it still doesn’t leave you feeling depressed. It is a very inward reflection – on memories, on war, on many things. It leaves me feeling enriched.’

The 21st Symphony is coupled on the disc with the strikingly different Second Symphony of 1946: scored for string orchestra, it’s a showcase for Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s special relationship with Kremerata Baltica. ‘It is in G major,’ she explains, ‘and for me, the first movement is nothing other than spring. It’s connected to Weinberg’s passion for impressionism while he was studying in Minsk, before his music really started to show the influence of Shostakovich. The second movement is maybe one of the most beautiful adagios I know. I’m burning to do more. The chamber music, the songs – as I get to know Weinberg better, each new piece is greater than the last. I think he will be an exploration for a whole lifetime.’

Mirga

Mirga with Gidon Kremer (photo: Mathew Becket / DG)

The connection seems so strong that it’s tempting to ask whether she feels that her own heritage gives her a special empathy with Weinberg’s music. Polish by birth, he spent much of his creative life in Soviet Russia, though his Jewishness made him a persecuted outsider in both countries. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is from Lithuania, a nation with deep cultural and political links to Poland as well as a shared experience – as recently as her own childhood – of Soviet oppression.

‘It very much feels like music from my part of the world, and therefore connected to a history and a culture and a mentality which are, in a way, closer to me than German or British culture. There is definitely something that the Slavic and Baltic nations – let’s say the former Soviet bloc – have in common. I’m a huge fan of Dostoevsky, and time and again I find feelings emerging from his writing that I think are connected to our part of the world. There is this big, big darkness in Weinberg’s music – these long pedals in the basses, the lowest notes. Every winter my grandmother says, “Ah, I can’t stand it.” You feel a helplessness in front of the darkness, which you must confront. And then on the other hand there is this June light, which bathes the whole country: the most idealistic, optimum light.’

‘Birmingham’s diversity is fantastic – the whole globe is focused here. And the CBSO has a youthful spirit, is open to new things’

And there’s also a very particular Baltic musical tradition that’s focused on choral singing. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s mother is a pianist, her father conducts the Aidija Chamber Choir in Vilnius, and in 1994, at the age of seven, she travelled with them to the International Eisteddfod at Llangollen, Wales, where the choir won the youth choir prize. For a long time, it looked as if that would be her own artistic destiny. ‘I do play the piano, and I’ve played a little bit of violin and percussion – but in my youth, life was not possible without singing. I spent more or less every minute with my parents; they took me to their conducting lessons, their rehearsals, and on tour with choirs in a bus.’

Her first experiences on the podium (she studied in Graz, Bologna, Leipzig and Zurich) were initially as a choral conductor, and it’s still an important part of her musical make-up. Her Birmingham plans include a re-creation of a Lithuanian communal song festival, and she cites Johannes Prinz, director of Vienna’s Singverein, as an important mentor. But when another mentor, the Austrian conductor Wolfgang Bozic, mistakenly said to her in Graz, ‘You are studying orchestral conducting as your main subject, aren’t you?’ artistic curiosity – a defining Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla trait – eventually got the better of her. A masterclass with Herbert Blomstedt encouraged her to enter the 2012 Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award, which she won. That led to opera jobs in Heidelberg and Bern, a Dudamel Fellowship in Los Angeles, and from 2015 to 2017 the post of music director at the Salzburg Landestheater.

(photo: Andreas Hechenberger / DG)

(photo: Andreas Hechenberger / DG)

In other words, she learnt her craft the way that Karajan, Walter and Klemperer did, at the heart of the central European tradition. ‘The first challenge in Salzburg’, she says, ‘was planning a season as part of a creative team: discussing ideas together, and finding out together what the common idea was, or could become. Of course, the focus was on operatic repertoire, and it was quite a challenge to find the right works, because the Landestheater, while very beautiful, has a tiny pit. There is space for a maximum of seven first violins.’ Not Elektra then. ‘Not Elektra. But I was listening to a lot of chamber operas, and also modern and 20th-century works. And, of course, I was thinking about Salzburg, and developing the conversation with that particular place and that particular audience.’

That way of thinking about an ensemble in the round – as a product of a specific time, place and community – made her perfect for Birmingham, where the orchestra is a part of civic life, with an expanding outreach and community brief. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has already worked with the CBSO’s choruses, its youth orchestra and its sister organisation, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. She’s thrown herself into joint projects with the city’s universities and conservatoire, and popped up – complete with the full orchestra – amid astonished rush-hour crowds at Birmingham New Street railway station. But all of that would be meaningless without the special energy that she generates on the podium at Symphony Hall. With Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, something unexpected and illuminating occurs in every concert – whether she’s replacing the soprano soloist with a boy chorister in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, rewarding the audience with a high-octane Ligeti encore, or (unannounced) prefacing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Purcell’s March for brass and timpani from his funeral music for Queen Mary. The audience responds, the orchestra responds, and – as with Oramo and Sir Simon Rattle before her – that mutual trust creates a space for exploration. The Weinberg project, Roxanna Panufnik’s choral epic Faithful Journey (2018), and Fires (2010), an orchestral work by the Lithuanian composer Raminta Šerkšnytė (given its UK premiere in 2016), have all benefited from that shared spirit of adventure.

(photo: Andreas Hechenberger / DG)

(photo: Andreas Hechenberger / DG)

‘Raminta is another artist who expresses this Baltic idea of darkness and light. We played Fires a few times on tour, and it grew into something very, very special. We always got enthusiastic shouts after that piece.’ Music by Šerkšnytė – recorded with Lithuanian forces, as well as Kremerata Baltica – will feature on a future DG disc. But Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is nothing if not open to new and different cultural experiences, and Birmingham has its own very specific musical tradition.

‘Birmingham is full of surprises,’ she says. ‘It has this huge, wonderful heritage as an industrial city, but also as a musical centre. So many stars of the past came here – Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Dvořák and, of course, Elgar. We must build on that.’ A disc of British music with the CBSO is on the cards, though it’s unlikely, just yet, to feature Elgar. ‘I’m fascinated by The Dream of Gerontius, the ideas speak to me – but I need to feel I know every word, like in an opera production.’ She’s particularly interested, however, in Ruth Gipps, a former oboist with the CBSO, whose Second Symphony was premiered in Birmingham in 1946; and Sir Michael Tippett, whose Piano Concerto (originally commissioned by the CBSO) she has already performed with Steven Osborne, and whose A Child of our Time she will record for DG in Birmingham next season. ‘I just find Tippett very, very interesting, in terms of both thematic material and structure. Harmonically, the Piano Concerto is full of the most fantastic things, yet still it’s very clear what is happening. A Child of our Time has a spiritual kinship with Weinberg’s 21st Symphony. You know, right now in our world there are many things happening politically, and it’s crucial to commemorate the tragedies of the past to make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes. A Child of our Time can have a role in this.’

Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem features in her plans too, and, with the CBSO about to celebrate its centenary in 2020 with a series of major commissions and premieres (precise details are embargoed at time of press, though the plans I’ve seen will raise eyebrows), DG is unlikely to be short of ‘unknown’ and ‘special’ possibilities from Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and her Birmingham team. If, that is, they choose to take them. As far as she’s concerned, ‘I want to record things that are particularly important for us – something with which we can make a special, unique impact.’ For Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, it’s essentially about responding – as an artist – to the place and time in which she finds herself.

‘The diversity of Birmingham is fantastic,’ she says. ‘In a way, the whole globe is focused in this city. I see it as a really big, very beautiful but huge challenge to reach our audience here. And maybe I say this too much, but this orchestra has a youthful spirit, in the sense of being open to things: being curious, wanting to discover new repertoire, new ways of playing known repertoire, and new ways of carrying out our role in society. Both the audience and the orchestra are incredibly supportive of their music director, and this is a privilege because it creates a feeling that we are on a journey together – a very wonderful journey.’

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s Weinberg CD with the CBSO is the Recording of the Month in the June issue of Gramophone. Explore our subscription options here: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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