Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: ‘British orchestras don’t have an easy life’

The CBSO’s live-wire music director on her new work-life balance, the inexorable rise of female conductors – and the impact of yet more funding cuts

On a blustery March morning, a young woman in padded jacket, skinny jeans and trainers strides along the towpath in Birmingham, reusable water bottle in hand, headphones in ears. She’s chatting into the mouthpiece. It’s a standard urban scene. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla takes up the thread.

“And suddenly I hear someone singing nearby, raucously but expressively. And it’s so strong and loud the friend on the other end says, ‘Who is that singing?’ And I say I don’t know… and as I walk on I wonder, Ah, have we got enough good baritones in the chorus right now? Should we be recruiting? Should I bring this up in the next planning meeting?”

Gražinytė-Tyla, 32, became music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and its choruses, in 2016. She was barely known at the time. Her name required lessons in pronunciation, and was quickly, and affectionately, shortened to Mirga. Since then she has thrilled audiences around the world, in Birmingham and beyond. Her podium style is athletic, magnetic, electrifying. She is laser-focused, restlessly questing, but exuberant, full of laughter. She has championed the young British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason in concert and on his debut album, and embarked on a quest to restore Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96), a neglected Polish-Jewish composer, to the repertoire.

“Weinberg left a huge amount of music. I’m just beginning the journey of discovery. The form, the instrumental writing, the harmony, the virtuosity… it’s incredible. He should, one day, be up there with Beethoven and Bach.” Last month, Mirga made history as the first female conductor to sign a long-term exclusive contract with the illustrious record label Deutsche Grammophon, with her first disc, of Weinberg, out in May. “It’s a responsibility to have this contract. It’s important to try to make something which stays for eternity, which has a special message.”

Mirga with the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the CBSO at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, in November 2017.
Mirga with the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the CBSO at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, in November 2017. Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Observer

She has also had her first child, a son, now six months old. We meet in the CBSO offices in one of her rare gaps between rehearsals, travels, feeds. Impossibly looking a model of health, Mirga shows no sign of the exhaustion she might reasonably feel. She thrives on the issues of working with an orchestra in a place like Birmingham. “Our role in the city is crucial. Our audiences don’t yet mirror its diverse nature. It will take time. But when I go to one of our kids’ concerts, I know the change is happening. You could be anywhere in the world.”

However much the response to Mirga’s appointment tried coolly to assess the quality of her music-making – she had an impressive track record already, winning the Salzburg festival young conductors award in 2012; holding assistant positions in Los Angeles and elsewhere – no one could ignore the fact of her being a woman in a top orchestral post. Now in its centenary season, the CBSO is an outstanding ensemble, with an impeccable conductors’ pedigree and a growing international reputation. Mirga follows in the mighty footsteps of Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo and, her immediate predecessor, Andris Nelsons. On her appointment, a German newspaper praised the choice of this “zierlich” – dainty, or petite – conductor. “Not wrong, I suppose,” she concedes, “but so inappropriate. You wouldn’t describe [Georg] Solti as ‘that bald conductor’.”

The oldest of three, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was born into a musical family in Vilnius, Lithuania, her father a choral conductor, her mother a pianist, her great-aunt a composer. From an early age she wanted to be a conductor, and saw no barriers. When she started at the CBSO, Mirga accepted she must act as a female cheerleader but could not understand what all the fuss was about.

“I grew up without imagining any problems. I hope those who come after me will think it quite normal,” she said at the time, no doubt recalling the celebrated response of the French pedagogue-conductor Nadia Boulanger on the occasion of her debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1938. How does it feel to be the orchestra’s first female conductor, a reporter asked Boulanger. “I’ve been a woman for a little over 50 years, and have gotten over my initial astonishment,” she replied.

Much has changed even in the short time Mirga has been in Birmingham. Elim Chan has been appointed principal guest conductor at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, as well as chief conductor in Antwerp. Karina Canellakis takes over as chief conductor of the Nederlands Radio Philharmonic later this year. Dalia Stasevska has a principal guest post at the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Susanna Mälkki, Jessica Cottis and Alice Farnham are among several now in the frame, joining established figures such as Jane Glover, Marin Alsop and Simone Young. Mirga knows it’s still a question of perception. “A slightly old-fashioned lady said to me the other day, ‘but there are so many women conductors now’! And of course there are. The floodgates have opened. There’s so much encouragement now.”

Watch Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conduct the CBSO in Beethoven’s Overture ‘Leonore’ No 3 at the BBC Proms in 2017.

Mirga’s pregnancy, announced in the middle of her first season, inevitably caused surprise (almost as if she should have announced her intentions to all and sundry in advance). Both she and the CBSO’s chief executive, Stephen Maddock, instead handled it with sangfroid, working out a plan for her absence and getting on with it. Mirga’s partner is a musician, their home base Salzburg (she spends about a third of the year in Birmingham). While she is politely but firmly reserved about the details of family life, she is open about the practicalities of combining work and motherhood. Since the foundation last year of Swap’ra (Supporting Women and Parents in Opera), the subject is out in the open for serious debate.

“Coming back so quickly was harder than I had anticipated. It was all a very sharp learning curve, and of course continues to be. It’s a new situation of dividing your concentration, finding the balance. In this growing emancipation there’s been an emphasis on women proving they could go on exactly as before. I think now we are entering another period. We have to admit that everything changes: mind, body, life. Of course you can do many things you could before but it’s a huge change, and it’s dishonest to pretend otherwise.”

Her players have grown accustomed to seeing the baby at the back of the hall in rehearsals, reportedly an acute and dedicated listener already, tended variously by Mirga’s partner, parents, younger siblings, a nanny. “He’s never far from me! There is an expression: ‘until the kid grows up you need a full farm’. In modern society, living in big cities, we don’t have big families nearby in many cases. I am lucky to have all this different support but it will take some working out.” It will. She has a 13-concert European tour in May with her friend, the pianist Yuja Wang, as soloist. “I have already learned: let less be more,” Mirga says. She has cancelled all guest conducting for at least two years. “I need more space, more time, around my work. I am totally on a search…”

The long habit of having a male authority figure on the podium may be receding, but it has been an obstacle. Mirga has found her own solutions. Her approach is collaborative, even if the final choices must be hers. “All the questions, and all the answers, are in the music itself. For all of us, we want to explore what it is we value in music, what it is that made us, as young children, want to devote our entire lives to it, and spend hours working at it.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the CBSO in Birmingham in 2016, the year she took charge.
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the CBSO in Birmingham in 2016, the year she took charge. Photograph: Benjamin Ealovega

There are practical problems too, not solved by love or inspiration. “British orchestras, the CBSO included, don’t have an easy life. They work very hard, very fast. They don’t have the government support you get in, say, Germany or Austria or elsewhere. Or the rehearsal time.” She gives, as a comparison, the example of the Vienna Philharmonic. “You know for their celebrated New Year’s Day concert they have six rehearsals, and a dress rehearsal, and they play the concert twice before the one we see on TV. That’s one of the greatest orchestras in the world, playing waltzes they play every year!” A British orchestra might have one, or at most two days of rehearsal, and just one concert. Then it’s on to the next. The CBSO’s public funding from Birmingham City Council has been cut by 65% – more than £1.3m per year – in real terms since 2010. Days after our meeting, the orchestra learned that a further 10% cut was imminent.

Mirga’s next concert, in Birmingham next Sunday, with the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, is part of the CBSO’s Baltic Way. The series title refers to the human chain that joined, in peaceful demonstration, across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1989, leading to the independence of the Baltic states following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “In Lithuania the force which united people 30 years ago was singing. Tens of thousands of people joined together in squares and meadows and sang together. You don’t need to study for years to sing and make music with others. Anyone can do it.”

Birmingham will have its own song festival on 9 June, with the CBSO’s choirs participating. That mystery canal-side songster might want to take note. “It creates an amazing feeling of unity,” Mirga reflects, realising the acute timeliness of her remark. “It’s what everyone in Britain should do right now. Sing. Not in their thousands. In their millions.”


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
CBSO/Gražinytė-Tyla; LSO/Alsop; LPO/ Renes review – the Sheku and Mirga show
The remarkable young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the CBSO’s irresistible music director are a dream double act

Fiona Maddocks

12, Nov, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in classical: CBSO/ Gražinytė-Tyla; LSO/Rattle; Harlem Quartet – review
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO hit the road with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, also performed by the LSO and Simon Rattle

Fiona Maddocks

21, Jan, 2018 @7:30 AM

Article image
CBSO appoints 29-year-old Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla as music director
The Lithuanian woman who succeeds Andris Nelsons in Birmingham wins acclaim for energy and ‘rare talent’

Imogen Tilden

04, Feb, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
In Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla it looks like the CBSO have got it exactly right again
The Birmingham Orchestra has an enviable track record in selecting the right conductors to become its music director at just the right moment in their careers

Andrew Clements

04, Feb, 2016 @10:05 AM

Article image
The future of the arts: ‘The classical music world has been transfigured’
Our critic mainlines Tudor polyphony and talks to performers, conductors and composers longing for the return of communal music-making

Fiona Maddocks

21, Jun, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
City of Birmingham SO/Gražinytė-Tyla review – spellbinding, bewitching
Precise yet expressive playing in this remarkable concert climaxed in an astonishing song cycle by Hans Abrahamsen

Andrew Clements

28, Aug, 2016 @12:12 PM

Article image
CBSO/Gražinytė-Tyla/Kremer review – keening emotions and vivid humanity
A weekend dedicated to the composer Mieczysław Weinberg featured the first British performance of his anguished 21st Symphony, dedicated to victims of the Warsaw ghetto

Andrew Clements

25, Nov, 2018 @12:14 PM

Article image
CBSO/Gražinytė-Tyla review – excitement and grandeur for epic Mahler
Although occasionally the focus became blurred, the CBSO were superb and vocally this was an immaculate performance

Andrew Clements

18, Jun, 2019 @3:34 PM

Article image
CBSO/Gražinytė-Tyla review – ambitious tone poems and kinetic art
This refined outing of painter/composer Čiurlionis came complete with Norman Perryman’s live paintings

Andrew Clements

17, Feb, 2019 @12:20 PM

Article image
CBSO/Gražinytė-Tyla review – Adès’ ghostly Buñuel showpiece sees the light
A centenary celebration – coming to the Proms tonight – included an Ades premiere and, 75 years after its composition, Ruth Gipps’s second symphony

Andrew Clements

05, Aug, 2021 @2:48 PM