Prom 55: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the CBSO ★★★★★
“London debuts are seldom such a baptism of fire” – John Allison
Perhaps the most newsworthy of all the 2016 Proms, this concert went into the schedule initially tagged “Conductor TBC”. No ordinary artistic loose end, it signalled something of a scoop for the Proms, since the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was then on the point of announcing its successor to Andris Nelsons. Anticipation increased when the CBSO revealed that its new music director would indeed be Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and the early opportunity of hearing this 30-year-old Lithuanian conductor make nothing less than her London debut was not lost on the capacity crowd here in the Albert Hall.
London debuts are seldom such a baptism of fire, and rarely bring out the TV cameras, but much was riding on their first programme together (previewed the night before in Birmingham) since that announcement. Quite some celebration, this concert made it clear that the CBSO has not lost its winning streak in finding young conductors destined for great things – her predecessors include not only Nelsons but Sakari Oramo and Simon Rattle.
Gražinytė-Tyla chose to open with Mozart, a good calling card since she is already music director of the Salzburg Landestheater. Her baton style – outstretched arms perhaps reflecting her initial training as a choral conductor – is almost balletic, with graceful sweeping gestures punctuated by sharp stabs, and the latter might have made for a potentially jerky start to the Magic Flute overture. Yet the obvious rapport between her and the orchestra translated instead into sunny playing that was precise and elegant.
Contemporary music will be a vital part of her CBSO work, and it featured here in the form of the London premiere of Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you. Better late than never: such is the phenomenal success of this piece that is has received a couple of dozen performances since its world premiere in 2013. A setting of Ophelia’s words filtered through the oulipian imagination of the writer Paul Griffiths, the work was composed for Barbara Hannigan, who completely inhabits the music with self-contained fragility.
After an uneasy start, due to some disruption in the hall, soprano and conductor both took possession of the piece. Hannigan’s voice may be on the small side for this venue, and more words would have been welcome, yet her tone became part the glistening, wintry soundscape. Gražinytė-Tyla maintained fastidious control right up to Ophelia’s ethereal benediction.
The toughest test here was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, a well-known warhorse full of pitfalls when it comes to pacing. It was no mean achievement that Gražinytė-Tyla, conducting from memory, shaped such a fresh-sounding performance. The opening fanfares poured out generously and the full orchestral punches were sharply etched before this conductor got down to the business of a naturally flowing performance. The symphonic argument in her unhurried first movement was keenly detailed, and the succeeding movements had lyrical warmth and crisp articulation. A compelling force on the podium, Gražinytė-Tyla clearly signals exciting times ahead for the CBSO.
Reprinted from the Daily Telegraph, London.