The list of major orchestras conducted by women is shamefully short. In the U.S. only one has risen to the top: Marin Alsop, who recently retired as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Currently there are no woman music directors among America’s 25 largest orchestras, and female guest conductors are still a rarity at leading symphonic halls and opera houses.

On Tuesday, local audiences got a chance to see one of the world’s most promising and (despite her relative youth) celebrated woman conductors. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, 36, was appointed music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2016, a post previously occupied by Sir Simon Rattle. Gražinytė-Tyla announced last year that 2021-22 was to be her last season as the orchestra’s music director before moving to the role of principal guest conductor. 

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Credit: Photo courtesy of Philharmonic Society of Orange County

Since she won the 2012 Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award, Lithuanian-born Gražinytė-Tyla has been dazzling audiences everywhere. Some may remember her stint at the L.A. Philharmonic, where she was a Dudamel Fellow, assistant conductor, and associate conductor during her five-year stay from 2012-17. She led the L.A. Phil in her well-received O.C. debut, a 2015 concert at Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Gražinytė-Tyla’s short but stellar career was bolstered in 2020 when her orchestra’s recording of two obscure works, Mieczysław Weinberg’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 21, won the coveted Recording of the Year prize at the Gramophone Awards.

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Although she told the New York Times in February that she’s not interested in conducting an American orchestra, Gražinytė-Tyla is often mentioned as a leading contender to fill the most high-profile vacancies here, including the New York Philharmonic. (Music director Jaap van Zweden steps down in 2024.) It seems inevitable that she’ll end up at the helm of a big-name orchestra someday soon.

Although it’s over a century old, the CBSO began to achieve international renown only after Simon Rattle became chief conductor in 1980. Under him, the orchestra began recording more and became one of the leading ensembles in Europe. It earned recognition for its interpretations of late Romantic and 20th century works, especially those of Sibelius and Gustav Mahler.

Not surprisingly, the CBSO is also no slouch when it comes to English music, and that’s where the evening began on Tuesday at the concert presented by the Philharmonic Society. 

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Vaughan Williams: Tallis Fantasia
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
Weinberg: Jewish Rhapsody, Op. 36, No. 2
Debussy: La Mer

Where: Segerstrom Concert Hall
When: Tuesday, Oct. 11

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is famous for its ravishing, long phrases and sumptuous harmonies, and it contains some of his finest writing for strings. The orchestra greeted it like an old friend, with passion and a luminous, rich string sonority that English orchestras seem to reserve for their native composers.

Gražinytė-Tyla chose an approach that was expansive and thoughtful but not over the top (some conductors overdo the gauzy sweep of the piece). Her conducting combines physicality and precision: big, athletic jabs that defy her small stature combined with subtle, expressive commands that reveal her background as a choral conductor. One such moment was the Fantasia’s slowly dying final chord. Gražinytė-Tyla let the sound fade to nothingness by gradually lowering her hands, never delivering a cutoff.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor was given similar treatment. It’s a work that can get overly expressive in the wrong hands, but Gražinytė-Tyla handled the ensemble like she was conducting a chamber orchestra, keeping balances precise and never letting the energetic moments get out of control. Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason gave a warm and spirited performance, but his sound was overwhelmed at times by the orchestra. Kanneh-Mason’s brief encore, his own arrangement of Bach’s “Come, Sweet Death,” was a sweetly enjoyable curiosity, pairing him with a quartet of the orchestra’s cellists.

The second half of the concert started with “Jewish Rhapsody” from Mieczysław Weinberg’s Festive Scenes for Orchestra. Weinberg (1919-96), a Pole who spent his career in the USSR, owes much of his growing posthumous reputation to Gražinytė-Tyla. The language of this work seems familiar — think Shostakovich and Prokofiev — but it has a humor and lyricism all its own. Gražinytė-Tyla and the orchestra gave it heft and verve: moody, atmospheric, explosive, with lots of bright percussion and vigorously sawing strings.

Debussy’s ravishing tone poem, “La Mer,” ended the concert. It’s a wash of complex and seductive orchestral effects. Gražinytė-Tyla’s interpretation was marked by great clarity and a knack for bringing out subtle thematic relationships, even though the overall sound wasn’t as ethereal and shimmery as some orchestras strive for. 

The evening was distinguished by exceptional solo work, especially from the strings and woodwinds, and it ended with an encore that again showcased the orchestra’s lush, refined string sound: Thomas Ades’ “O Albion” for string quartet, arranged for string orchestra.

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.


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