Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is not a name that rolls easily off the tongue, but we will soon have to master it. She’s an astonishingly gifted conductor who, at the age of 30, is about to take up the reins as Osborn music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
That’s more than just a plum job; it’s a good omen. The CBSO has enjoyed a winning streak in its choice of chief conductor. Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons have all gone on to great things. Now everyone is predicting that Gražinytė-Tyla will follow in their footsteps.
It’s a good bet. This young Lithuanian has been generating huge excitement since taking on her first orchestral directorship in Heidelberg, in 2010. Since then, successes have come thick and fast. She won the Nestlé Conducting Competition in 2012, and last year became director of the Landestheater opera company in Salzburg.
What bowls people over is the huge rhythmic energy and imaginative insight she brings to everything she touches. When she conducted Mahler’s First Symphony last year with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (where she’s now associate conductor), one critic remarked: “She made the piece so vivid, some kind of musical sorcery seemed involved.”
This sorcery emanates from a strikingly pale, tiny, pretty woman, standing barely over five feet tall. She’s the polar opposite of how we imagine a commanding maestro of the podium to look. It must surely have put her at a disadvantage when she started out, but when I ask if she was nervous she seems puzzled.
“Not at all. Conducting is not a battle to impose myself, it’s about sharing music with those who love it as much as I do.”
Is she saying that performance nerves don’t exist for her? “Well there have been moments when I’ve been more tense than at others. I definitely have memories of concerts when I was not feeling totally secure or absolutely strong.”
It’s time to point to the elephant in the room. Wasn’t she disadvantaged at the outset by being a woman in a man’s world? “Well, you know I have only once or twice been aware of this issue in my professional life. I remember when I had to conduct an Austrian male voice choir, they were astonished and said to me: 'You know, we have never been conducted by a woman’ – but in a nice way.
“I remember my grandmother, who was a violinist in the national symphony orchestra of Lithuania, said to me: 'You know, my dear, conducting is not really a profession for a lady.’ As a social question, I can see the status of women in conducting and in the world is an important one. But when I am standing in front of an orchestra the question disappears, because we are all just human beings trying to do our best for the music in front of us.
“It can sometimes be an advantage.
I remember after a big educational project in a Latino quarter of Los Angeles with the LA Philharmonic, a group of mothers said to me: 'Thank you; it was so good to see this concert for our daughters’ sake.’ I was very touched.
“Later a friend of mine said it was very good for their sons, too!” She lets out a great booming laugh, surprising from such a petite woman, which makes heads turn in the café we’re meeting in. It’s clear the gender question is a non-issue.
Far more interesting is the complex mix of family and cultural influences that formed GraŽinytė-Tyla. Music was definitely in her blood. Her great-uncle was an organist in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, her great-aunt was a composer. Both parents were musicians, but they steered her away from music.
“They wanted me to have a real profession, unlike them,” she says. “So they encouraged me to study painting at the arts college I attended. But I told them when I was 11 that music was all I wanted.”
When did she first get the idea that conducting might be her passion? “At the college we all had conducting lessons from the age of 13, and my father was a choral conductor. But he was a very strong disciplinarian, and I realised I wanted to be a different kind of conductor.”
Was there one professor who noticed her talent? “No, it was the other way round!” she says, again with that laugh. “I knew I wanted to specialise in choral conducting, and the best person in the world for that was a professor [Johannes Prinz] in Graz, in Austria. So I went there to study.” Clearly the steely ambition was there from the start.
Having music in the family was one advantage; another was the strong choral tradition in Lithuania. “It is a hugely important thing for us,” she says. “Much of the repertoire is rooted in folksong, and this helped Lithuania to keep its cultural identity during the Soviet occupation.”
I ask whether the scars of that era still persist in Lithuanian society.
“I think to liberate ourselves from the Soviet era will definitely take several generations.” Why? “Imagine somebody who was trained to be obedient, and not to think his or her own thoughts. That was our situation. It makes it so difficult to take responsibility for one’s own life, and one’s own society. People just shrug and say, 'I can’t change anything’.’”
Surely that doesn’t apply to someone of her generation? “Actually in some ways it does. I was moulded by the very rigid Lithuanian education system, and when I went to Graz to study I had quite a shock. I couldn’t believe there were no exams, and it was up to me to acquire credits by choosing the courses I wanted. This was such a liberation for me! I soon realised I had to unlearn a lot of things I learnt at home. I had been raised in a system created by Russian professors which trained us to do tasks without thinking.”
She gets quite heated as she explains the result of this system on the youth of her country. “To begin with, the results are really impressive, but then later we fall behind Western countries, because we have not taught our young people how to think independently. They just learn by rote.”
Unsurprisingly GraŽinytė-Tyla is a passionate supporter of the European project, like most of her countrymen. “I remember when I was touring Europe as a girl, singing in choral concerts, we would sometimes spend 20 hours waiting at the border for our passports to be checked. It’s just crazy that some countries want to go back to that.”
Her rise has cost her some soul-searching as well as huge effort and determination – which is surely be why her approach to conducting is so humane and intelligent. “There are many psychological challenges when you are faced with a big group, which are very different from the challenges that face each individual,” she says. “If you see somebody who is not happy, or under pressure, you tend to take it personally, but of course you can’t. You have to help that person, while standing apart from them. In the end, it’s the music that saves us, because it is the music we are all there to serve.”
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Prom 55 on August 27