“See you in Birmingham!” chirped Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at the end of her first BBC Proms concert in charge of the CBSO. Well, it's taken nearly two years, Mirga, but I finally made it, tempted by a creatively-programmed festival to mark the centenary of the death of Claude Debussy. However, this wasn't a case of anniversary composer saturation. Of the three CBSO concerts I attended on this second weekend, there were only four orchestral scores from the pen of Debussy himself. This was also a reflection on Debussy's legacy, his impact on composers right up to the present day.

Sacred Debussy at Symphony Hall © Andrew Fox
Sacred Debussy at Symphony Hall
© Andrew Fox

Concerts were themed under titles. Sacred Debussy led us from Bach to Messiaen, before an evocative performance of Le Martyre de saint Sébastien; Exotic Debussy took Britten and Ravel on tour to the Far East before the triptych, Images; Natural Debussy programmed music by George Benjamin, whom Gražinytė-Tyla dubs “the grandchild of Debussy”, before a thrilling La Mer. The weekend also included chamber recitals and featured performers from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, the CBS Youth Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group – a truly city-wide celebration. With several programmes only an hour long, schools projects, cheap ticket prices and unreserved seating, here was a model of how to make classical music accessible to the widest possible audience.

Gražinytė-Tyla is an hypnotic conductor. At times, she barely grips the baton, tracing fluid shapes in the air to conjure up La Cathédrale engloutie from the deep. At others, she flicks her wrist and slices her baton horizontally, or crouches on her haunches and then stretches high, leaping off her feet at one point in an exciting conclusion to La Mer, salty spray flung around the hall. Yet quieter moments drew the listener in, teasing out the CBSYO woodwind lines evocatively in the central Parfums de la nuit movement of Ibéria, while the veiled string ecstasies in Saint Sébastien, along with Ilse Eerens' silvery soprano, were beguiling. The sparse textures of George Benjamin's Ringed by the Flat Horizon created a haze of high strings and woodwinds, breaking into a percussive thunderstorm before the piece was dramatically curtailed after a cellist fainted.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the CBSO's Debussy Festival © Andrew Fox
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the CBSO's Debussy Festival
© Andrew Fox

This was no single composer marathon. Nor was it a single conductor affair. Gražinytė-Tyla was happy to share podium duties, Assistant Conductor Jonathan Bloxham, for example, leading a gentle saunter down the boulevards in Printemps, while Simon Halsey's fluttering fingers drew such exquisite pianissimos from the CBSO Chorus in Messiaen's O sacrum convivium! that you could hear a pin drop. Imaginative use was made of Symphony Hall, particularly at the start of Natural Debussy, where we were plunged into darkness and the breathy strains of Syrinx floated down from the balcony, beautifully played by CBSO principal Marie-Christine Zupancic. This segued into Printemps (orchestrated by Henri Büsser), which opens on the same enharmonic equivalent note as Syrinx.

Not everything was successful. I'm unconvinced that the Pas de six represents Britten at his most “exotic” in The Prince of the Pagodas – other sections of his ballet draw more on the gamelan sounds which so enraptured Debussy at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition. And I don't particularly care for Colin Matthews' orchestrations of the Préludes, grotesque caricatures of the piano originals in some instances, although the harp and celesta in La Cathédrale engloutie are effective at offering glints of sunlight on the water. They offer Debussy viewed through a different lens... but the original often reveals more.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting <i>Le Martyre de saint Sébastien</i> © Andrew Fox
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting Le Martyre de saint Sébastien
© Andrew Fox

Among the soloists of the weekend, organist Thomas Trotter – stepping in at short notice – drew terrific colours from Messiaen's Dieu parmi nous, the finale in full Wurlitzer mode that begged coloured lighting to flood the hall. The feathery delicacy of Suzy Willison-Kawalec's harp cadenza in the Danses sacrée et profane summoned the spirit of Ancient Greece, another Debussy inspiration. And in a chamber recital, a chance for the CBSO string players to emerge from the shadows, Eduardo Vassallo gave a well-oaked rendition of the Cello Sonata.

Without overdosing on Debussy, you may still have appetite for more... although you'll have to wait until June for Mirga and the CBSO to present Pelléas et Mélisande in concert. See you in Birmingham?