Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival – 5

AustriaAustria Schnittke, Mozart, Stravinsky: Andrius Zlabys (piano), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor), Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 12.8.2012 (JFL)

Schnittke: Ritual
Mozart: Piano Concerto in C, K467
Stravinsky: Petrushka (1947)

The 2012 Kit-Kat* Conductor
Young Conductors Award • Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

available at Amazon
DSCH, Ligety, Sy.10, Atmosphères,
D.Afkham / GMYO
Orfeo d’Or

The Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award Concert is a low-glam, low-yield event amid the Festival glitz, and only more obviously so when the summer is trimmed towards the big hitters and famous names of the business, staring down on us from all the posters. Not surprisingly, the Felsenreitschule was more than half empty, and half of those present presumably had comps.

Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is the third winner, after the promising David Afkham in 2010 and not-quite-so promising Ainārs Rubiķis in 2011 (review here). The water in the Baltics is contaminated with music—or else why is there such a nest of competent conducting talent coming from Lithuania (Gražinytė), Latvia (Rubiķis), and Estonia (Järvi 1, 2, 3, Tõnu Kaljuste, Anu Tali et al.). (Add nearby Finland and you could about supply the world wide conductor demand.) It’s a win-win thing, really: A gift to music—and I learn to find new diacriticals on my computer.

It’s heartening to see a woman having earned the prize, because we need more women on the rostrum. Firstly: to reach something akin to normalcy seeing women as conductors, rather than conducting aberrations. Secondly: so that writers, whenever they encounter a woman-sighting on the podium don’t immediately compare her to the three, four other half-way famous female conductors. Thirdly: so that one can finally start criticizing them when they’re not terribly good, without feeling like a misogynist or male-chauvinist pig.

Fortunately there wouldn’t be too much to critique about Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, even if one were allowed. The award-concert the 25-year old Lithuanian put together for Sunday opened with Alfred Schnittke’s Ritual for Large Symphony Orchestra, a lamentation for the victims of World War II, and that got well under way just moments after she put the self-conscious pompous conductor-poses behind her, the ostentatiously shaking the concert master’s hand and the generously-portentously gesturing the orchestra to sit, which were as mannered, if not quite as flamboyant, as Rubiķis’ last year. But as she stood before the sophisticated, precise-playing Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, all rigor, as unmovable as the steady crescendo in Schnittke’s music, she became increasingly more natural. It’s a grim lament that Schnittke raises from quiet depths to furor, before it ends in quick, broken sounds of gongs and bells that stop tolling, eventually… and Gražinytė-Tyla guided the orchestra through it with clean, impersonal movements, thankfully none of them copied from the jumping-jack school of Bernstein students.

The glimmer of natural authority, the most important, most intangible of a conductor’s gifts, flickered several times during the Mozart Piano Concerto K467 in C, in which her compatriot Andrius Zlabys took on the soloist’s duties. The first movement was meant to be dashing, and succeeded but for remaining a little too plain and timid; the third movement the same, but without the caveats. It’s a neat challenge to do Mozart, to accompany a soloist, and still shine in some way, and certainly more telling, more important, than doing something by, say, Tchaikovsky. (It’s a step towards the YCA Concert mandate I would love seeing introduced: for every winner to close with a mandatory Haydn Symphony.) Zlabys, fast and wooden and completely unmannered, didn’t steal his conductor’s thunder even in the slow movement (so famous it has its own nickname), but shone in a spirited first cadenza. Zlabys’ creaking chair produced extraneous noises, of which audience members notified him vociferously before he set about giving a prettily-unsubstantial encore—Arvo Pärt’s “Für Alina” methinks. Because the sound engineers decided that the slow movement of the Mozart was ruined, the audience was asked to remain after the short prize ceremony for a re-recording (to be released by Orfeo), to assure the same acoustic conditions.

The Petrushka (Stravinsky’s 1947 version) that concluded the official program was playful and gay, even in its darker moments. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (singer-soloist at the 1996 Lithuanian LEGO kids’ music festival, by the looks of this video) with her Marin Alsop memorial haircut, sent about coy, flirty looks with aching sincerity, and tightly steered the orchestra through this very entertaining Petrushka with considerable, not perfect, precision. A promising debut before an international, if lamentably sparse audience to which Nestlé—this being part of the real NYC-Award booster-package—herded some sixty international journalists.

There are reasons for and against lowering the prices (€ 25-135, in this case) for predictably less desirable concerts, even if the correlation between lowering prices and increasing audiences is not a direct one under Festival circumstances. But whatever has to be done to get the 1400-seat hall fuller for the big-stage debut of a NYC-Price Winner, ought to be done. In the end, it’s better to play before something approaching a full house of listeners who paid little, admitting the event has less prestige than others, than play before empty expensive seats.

Jens F. Laurson

* In the US, Kit-Kat is produced under license by Hershey, elsewhere in the world by Nestlé.

Picture courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli