Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla: ‘I am trying to sing when I conduct’

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Getty Images

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Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was appointed musical director of the CBSO when she was just 29

In the booklet for Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s new CD, she is credited not just as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s conductor (which she is) but as a soprano.

It’s not a huge surprise – in fact, she started out as a singer – but when it’s brought up, the musician becomes uncharacteristically bashful.

“This is funny,” she says, her face flushing a subtle shade of crimson, “it is apparently written that way”.

And is it written that way for a reason?

“I’ll reply with… let’s leave it in secret,” she laughs.

The reticence is surprising, given how expressive Gražinytė-Tyla is on stage.

The 32-year-old is a magnetic conductor, whose concerts buzz with passion, humanity and… yes, singing.

“In a way, I am trying to sing when I conduct,” she concedes.

“To sing the music and to bring the orchestra to singing. Because, you know, this is the first way music came out of us, as humans.”

It’s a theme she’ll explore next month, when she oversees the CBSO Song Festival – a day-long event, in which amateur and professional singers will gather to perform choral classics such as Handel’s Zadok the Priest and Parry’s Jerusalem.

Gražinytė-Tyla is importing the concept from her native Lithuania where, every four years, a Song and Dance Festival assembles as many as 40,000 singers and dancers for a communal celebration of the voice.

“It is a wonderful feeling, being part of a huge body which sings and feels in the same way,” she says. “And on top of that, it’s just very healthy. If you feel well singing together, your blood circulates better.

“I’m very curious [about] what will be the result of a mix of the British tradition of sing-alongs and the Baltic one.”

The musician has been adapting to the British way of life since 2016, when she was appointed the CBSO’s musical director.

She was a relative unknown – but had blown the orchestra’s musicians away after just two stints behind the podium.

“The CBSO made a very fast decision,” she says, recalling the day she received the news.

“I remember seeing my agent’s call and not answering, thinking, ‘This might be it,'” she says.

But the “shock of responsibility” was quickly outweighed by imagining “what great dreams we could share”.

“With the CBSO, it doesn’t matter which direction you look,” she said at the time. “They are open to every impulse. It is a huge gift for a conductor”.

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Andreas Hechenberger

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The musician will lead the CBSO at the BBC Proms later this summer

Accepting the role made her, for a brief period, the UK’s only female conductor (and just the third overall).

She’s now been joined by Elim Chan at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Dalia Stasevska at the BBC Symphony Orchestra – and hopes the fuss over her gender will now begin to subside.

“What I wish is to be judged for my work – and I’m sure this is the case for all my colleagues, male or female,” she says.

So far, it’s working. Although one critic said she needed to locate her “inner man”, most reviews have focused on Gražinytė-Tyla’s musicality, and an ability to uncover hidden depths in even the most familiar pieces.

The musician is careful to share praise with the CBSO players, who constantly impress her with their “warmth and the passion” for music, as well as the “unbelievable speed” at which they work.

But she’s come to realise that their efficiency is also a harsh necessity.

Gražinytė-Tyla spent much of her working life in Germany, where classical music is subsidised by the state, and LA, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic is funded by private donors. It’s been a shock to discover that musicians in the UK don’t have that luxury.

“The amount of work they have to bring if they want to survive, and survive well, is enormous.”

British audiences are also poorly-versed in classical music compared to their European counterparts, she observes.

“In Salzburg, you can share a conversation about Mozart basically with every taxi driver. You will discover very different things in a conversation with a taxi driver in Birmingham!

“But sometimes when the life is not the easiest, the biggest wonders can happen. So this is how I feel and it’s daily happening with the CBSO.”

The Festival of Song is just one initiative for bringing music to the masses; and the programme for the CBSO’s centenary year – announced last week – will focus on choral masterpieces associated with Birmingham, including Britten’s War Requiem, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

The conductor will also continue her quest to restore Polish-Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg to the classical repertoire.

She will play his music at the Proms; while her first release on Deutsche Grammophon comprises his Symphony No 2 and Symphony No 21.

A native of Warsaw, Weinberg escaped to the Soviet Union on foot in 1939, but his parents and younger sister died in the Holocaust – a tragedy which coloured his musical output.

Only a handful of his works made it through the Iron Curtain, and he lapsed into obscurity – but musicologist David Fanning has argued he’s the third most-important Soviet composer after Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

“There is really a lot of great stuff [left] to discover,” says Gražinytė-Tyla.

“It’s a bit like going through a forest where there is not really a path, and making your own path.”

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Frans Jansen

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The conductor recently cancelled all her non-CBSO engagements, so she could balance her schedule with caring for her newborn son

But the journey wouldn’t be worth it if the music didn’t connect, and she notes that “something very, very personal speaks out of every score I worked on so far”.

And that’s the key to the conductor’s phenomenal success. Her performances are consistently inclusive and emotional, embracing the connection between audience and musicians.

She’d rather be a musical catalyst than have her name in lights – hence the decision to attach the Lithuanian word for silence (Tyla) to her surname.

“I was thinking I could make my whole name simpler – although it probably didn’t help,” she laughs, “but another reason was of course my need for silence.

“For me, it’s a big value. Something we do not have often in our modern world.”

And maybe that explains the reluctance to confirm it’s her voice you hear on the Weinberg CD. As her profile rises, and Gražinytė-Tyla becomes known simply as Mirga, she wants to remind us that the work eclipses even the biggest stars.

“This is the magic of music,” she says.

“When we make it together, we bring all our differences but we also try to make one thing. So we go together towards one goal – which is this unifying power.”

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