Consider it a favor returned. In 1980, Simon Rattle, future Knight Bachelor, took the reins of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and built up what had been a fine second-tier band into a world-class ensemble. More than that, he imparted to the British orchestra the sort of brilliance and power more typical of their counterparts across the Atlantic; in particular the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of which Rattle happened to be Principal Guest Conductor at the time. There was a sense of the uncanny that unfolded when the CBSO, helmed by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who recently stood down as Music Director but is now Principal Guest Conductor, came to visit Disney Hall on Wednesday. Like suddenly being confronted with a vision of an alternate timeline, the sonority of the Birmingham team gave one a taste of the Los Angeles Philharmonic that could have been had the sound of the late Mehta and Giulini years of Rattle’s time continued to evolve, rather than go the way of Salonen’s finesse and chrome steel polish.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO
© Andrew Fox (Birmingham, October 2022)

Gražinytė-Tyla, if lacking the charismatic spark of her podium predecessor, has proven to be a formidable orchestra builder and steward herself. The sound she unleashed from her orchestra was bold, incisive, and – even amid the din of the evening’s many terrific climaxes – remarkably transparent.

The opening work on the program, Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel Symphony, extracted à la Hindemith from the eponymous opera, was a roaring orchestral onslaught. If the opera itself is meandering and suffers from comparison to the also eponymous Luis Buñuel that inspired it, the symphony freed the music from the fetters of the stage. Awash in clichés (the opening’s relentless habanera-like rhythms and clacking castanets immediately hammered into the listener, in case they were in doubt, that the opera’s action takes place in Spain) and uncertain whether its contrived camp is sincere or a pose, the music was engrossing fun all the same. Even in those moments when Adès is on the verge of being swallowed up by his pastiches of Herrmann (Vertigo), Prokofiev (Romeo and Juliet) and Ravel (La Valse).

After Adès’ postmodern thundering, Haydn’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in C major came as a refreshing palate cleanser. The audience cheered loudly for soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, but the most interesting aspect of the performance was the controlled richness and range of the CBSO. It was “big band” Haydn for the 21st century, which just a touch of “period performance” to keep the sound fresh (and the purists from screeching). Kanneh-Mason, was a fine soloist, although one too yielding and deferential. One waited in vain to hear him take flight, to assert himself just a little more against the orchestra. Instead, what one heard was more “symphony concertante” than concerto.

Following a fine, if somewhat idiosyncratic rendition of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis that seemed to align the music with the dryness of Stravinskian neoclassicism, was a powerful and grand reading of Debussy’s La Mer. Here, though, one wished that Gražinytė-Tyla could have stepped back from the score a little bit in order to take in a larger scope view. As it was, the results were exciting, but episodic. Climaxes were driven hard, each one erupting after the other with shattering force, yet much of the delicacy of Debussy’s scoring and the long thread of his free verse tribute to the sea was lost. Even so, it was all undeniably exciting and one can imagine that Gražinytė-Tyla’s interpretation will continue to grow and impress.