An Exciting Young Conductor Makes Her Mark Again in Birmingham

12/01/2016

Debussy, Schumann, Sibelius: Beatrice Rana (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 10.1.2016. (JQ)

Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Schumann – Piano Concerto

Sibelius – Lemminkäinen Suite (Four Legends)

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is continuing its search for a successor to Andris Nelsons and, inevitably, many of the conductors who have appeared with them since his departure was announced have been under particular scrutiny.

I don’t think I’m presumptuous in thinking that the conductor search is hotting up; after all, while the CBSO will very rightly wish to take their time in order to make the right choice they will also be conscious that it isn’t good for an orchestra to be too long without a principal conductor. It’s not often that an orchestra will arrange extra concerts after a season has begun but that’s just what has happened here. Today’s concert was announced only in October and just before Christmas another extra concert was slotted into the schedule. That will be on 16 January when Omer Meir Wellber will conduct Schubert and Shostakovich. Ms Gražinytė-Tyla made her CBSO debut last summer and Mr Wellber’s debut occurred last November so it’s hard to avoid speculating that the CBSO wanted to get another opportunity to see both of them in action as soon as possible.

Ms Gražinytė-Tyla will turn 30 this year. She’s Lithuanian and currently holds two significant posts: she’s recently become Music Director of the Salzburger Landestheater  and, since 2014, she has been Associate Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. She was previously a Dudamel Fellow with the LA Phil (2012/13) and her current post with them runs until July 2017. She made her CBSO debut last July. I was unable to attend that concert but have heard good things about it. One aspect intrigued me. The programme comprised Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and Beethoven’s Seventh. The point of intrigue was that I understand Ms Gražinytė-Tyla placed the Barber item in the middle of the Tchaikovsky extracts! That suggests a conductor with no little imagination and a willingness to take risks. I thought she took a risk with this latest programme too but, as we shall see, the risk paid off.

This afternoon’s concert opened with Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. From the start I was impressed by the way in which conductor and orchestra delivered Debussy’s delicate colours and textures. Much of the performance was sultry and languorous. Amid plenty of expert and expressive solo work the flute playing of Marie-Christine Zupancic stood out. Ms Gražinytė-Tyla demonstrated a very precise stick technique and a clear beat. It seemed to me that she communicated very well with the players. This was a refined performance with admirable clarity of texture and good atmosphere. 

For Schumann’s Piano Concerto the orchestra was joined by Beatrice Rana. This young pianist is still only twenty-two yet already she has achieved much, not least winning both the Silver Medal and the Audience Award at the 2013 Van Cliburn competition. A current BBC New Generation Artist, she’s already recorded the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s Second with Sir Antonio Pappano. I enjoyed her Schumann performance very much. To the first movement she brought a mix of strength and grace, helped by sensitive orchestral accompaniment. In the cadenza she demonstrated both virtuosity and poetry. Schumann’s slow movement is deliberately modest in scale but requires sensitivity; that’s what it received here from both the soloist and the orchestra. The transition to the attacca finale was well handled and the movement itself was full of vitality. There was also plenty of light and shade in this dexterous rendition of Schumann’s finale. It is an extrovert movement and we heard a spirited, happy account of it.

With an excellent soloist adeptly accompanied it was unsurprising that the performance was warmly received. I don’t know if this was Miss Rana’s Symphony Hall debut but if it was she clearly made a strong first impression on the audience. As an appropriately chosen encore she offered a winning reading of Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s song, ‘Widmung’.

After the interval we heard a complete performance of the Lemminkäinen Legends by Sibelius. I said earlier that there was an element of risk taking in Ms Gražinytė-Tyla’s programming. She must have known that this concert was, surely, in effect an audition for the CBSO and it would have been easy to choose for the main work a showpiece with which the orchestra was reasonably familiar. These Legends are not exactly staple repertoire fare with the exception of The Swan of Tuonela and, indeed, in nearly five decades of concert going I can’t recall hearing a live performance of the full set. I suspected that the CBSO might not have played the set too frequently and after the concert Tim Walton, a veteran Birmingham concert-goer confirmed to me that this was the case. His database of concerts attended lists just seven complete CBSO performances prior to this one, all conducted by noted Sibelians and beginning in 1986. But the last of these performances was given in 2010 so the music can’t have been under the CBSO’s fingertips though one would not have known this from the committed and assured performance we heard.

Ms Gražinytė-Tyla reversed the order of the middle two movements, as printed in the programme, so that we heard The Swan of Tuonela third. She may be quite slight of stature but there was no doubting her command in this performance of the Legends. In fact, though the preceding works had shown her in an impressive light I think it was in the Sibelius that she truly came into her own.    

There was conviction and colour aplenty in Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari. The atmosphere of the piece was very well conveyed in an exciting and sometimes powerful performance.  Lemminkäinen in Tuonela is the most dramatic of the four pieces and Ms Gražinytė-Tyla established in the opening bars a high degree of tension which was never lost. I thought this was a gripping performance, especially during the last few minutes, and it seemed to me that both conductor and orchestra displayed a strong understanding of the composer’s sound world. The opening of The Swan of Tuonela was bleak and doleful; Rachel Pankhurst’s cor anglais solos were keening and expressive. The playing of everyone involved in this movement was concentrated and highly controlled. This was eloquent music-making. In Lemminkäinen’s Return his mother has found his slain body and restores him to life, enabling him to ride home in triumph. From the start this performance had terrific drive and energy. The CBSO’s playing was colourful and rhythmically strong, urged on by their highly animated young conductor. Lemminkäinen came home triumphantly.

This was a terrific concert containing three highly contrasted, expertly delivered performances. Musically, each performance was extremely satisfying. On this evidence Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is already a highly accomplished conductor who genuinely has something to say about the music she conducts. It seemed to me that the CBSO responded very positively to her. Who knows how the process of the selection of the CBSO’s new principal conductor will pan out? But whatever the outcome I hope we shall see much more of this exciting young conducting talent in Birmingham. 

John Quinn  

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