It finally happened. Last Friday night, a full of confidence (and obviously pregnant) Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla climbed for the first time onto the conductor’s podium in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium. One of the foremost orchestral leaders of her generation, the Lithuanian is currently Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, succeeding a roster of other exceptional conductors: Sir Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons. Considering the renown surrounding these names in today’s musical world, there is little doubt that the CBSO musicians have an extraordinary gift for spotting conductors of great potential early in their careers. Gražinytė-Tyla’s performances in Birmingham and her guest conducting appearances around the world have done nothing but cement this claim even further.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla © Chris Lee
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© Chris Lee

Leading the first of the three concerts that the Met Orchestra traditionally offers at Carnegie Hall, after the end of the opera season, Gražinytė-Tyla proposed a program of late 19th-century, mostly Russian works. Even Debussy’s Prélude à l’aprés midi d’un faune has its own Russian connections. The conductor brought a wonderful intensity to a score that has the exact number of bars – 110 – as the number of lines in Mallarmé’s poem that was its source of inspiration. With assured, not necessarily elegant, but precise and eloquent gestures, Gražinytė-Tyla dictated a musical pace that was more fleeting than we are used to, carefully bringing forward Debussy’s experiments with irregular rhythmic patterns and vague tonality so similar to Mallarmé’s abandonment of classical meters in his poetry. She “sculpted” the sound with wide-ranging gestures emphasizing the trading of various motifs between members of the orchestra. Even if it wasn’t the subtlest of performances, it succeeded in keeping a fine balance between evoking nature and reverie.

Clarity was also the main focus during the rendition of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of DeathShostakovich’s orchestration preserves all the bitterness and grimness of the original score without trying to “tame” Mussorgsky’s peculiar melodies and harmonies into more conventional sounding ones. It’s true though that listeners can also sense the ironical whiff, typical for any music that the 20th-century master touched. Gražinytė-Tyla started her career as a choral conductor; as proven here, her ability to master all the intricacies of an orchestra supporting but not overwhelming a voice is outstanding. The soloist was the fabulous Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. For most of the performance, she had to rein her tremendously powerful voice, letting only occasionally everyone know that it was still there, undiminished. Rachvelishvili portrayed well the many facets of Death – comforting, provocative, insinuating, belligerent – embedded in these songs, making somehow the stories clear even for those that didn’t understand a word from Arseny Golenishcev-Kutuzov’s texts.

Anita Rachvelishvili, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the Met Orchestra © Chris Lee
Anita Rachvelishvili, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the Met Orchestra
© Chris Lee

Gražinytė-Tyla continued to prove her mettle after intermission, in one of the repertory’s true warhorses, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. She conveyed the impression of allowing her players a certain freedom to express themselves while still commanding the overall forces towards a preset goal. Her Tchaikovsky was less about the composer’s angst and suicidal tendencies but about beautiful sonorities, well-shaped phrasing, adrenalin-pumping. I had a few doubts in the first movement, when it seemed to me that there wasn’t enough in terms of dynamic variety and a tad too much in terms of a rhythmic one. But, the conductor handled the overall “conflict” between melody and structure in this opus wonderfully, emphasizing the underlying texture and gorgeous musical colors. The Metropolitan Opera's orchestra sounded better than in many recent performances. Besides outstanding solo interventions (Elaine Douvas’ oboe at the beginning of the Andantino), there was also a sense of overall cohesiveness which seemed to have been lost in the last couple of years.

Becoming a conductor, Mirga Gražinytė added the suffix “Tyla”, meaning silence in Lithuanian, to her last name. “It’s not necessary at all to use words in order to communicate through music,” is what she declared. And, yes, she is definitely able to convey her thoughts and intentions to both orchestra and listeners.