The fact that both conductor and soloist in a classical music concert are female should be a normal and everyday occurrence, but even in 2017 it is an unusual pairing. In fact, it is a first for me in over thirty years of attending concerts all over the world. Bravo then, to the Komische Oper for inviting two female artists to lead the orchestra in a subscription concert.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla © Frans Jansen
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© Frans Jansen

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is the current overnight sensation since she was named music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. As is so often the case, this overnight sensation was about two decades in the making, since she first conducted a choir at age 13.  Born in Vilnius, Lithuania, to musical parents, she most likely first learned to read music before her A-B-Cs. Now, at 30, she is well on her way to winning over the hearts of lovers of classical music. With a spring in her step, the petite Gražinytė-Tyla immediately commanded attention when she mounted the podium and gave the downbeat to Mieczysław Weinberg’s Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, Op. 47 no.1. Composed in 1949, this is the first of a four-part cycle. As the title suggests, the less than 20-minute-long rhapsody is based on folk themes from a part of the world that has a very rich musical heritage, spanning centuries of different ethnic traditions and religions. The piece is written for large orchestra and leans more toward the music of Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev than the avant-garde composers of the past mid-century. Warsaw-born Weinberg (1919–1996) is not a household name, but this may change as his oeuvre is being re-discovered and coming out of the shadow of the two more famous composers named above. After all, he composed 26 symphonies and 7 operas as well as many concerts and works for chamber ensembles, ballet and choral works. With ambassadors such as Gražinytė-Tyla, who impressively showed off his musical language, this is a task within reach.

The second work on the program was Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 1 “The Classical”, completed in 1918. The composer clearly stated his intention to write a piece in the classical tradition after having studied works by Joseph Haydn. Its lilting, even slightly ironical melodies are a homage to 18th-century music traditions. Gražinytė-Tyla took these on with a brisk tempo in the first and last movements. Her indications to the orchestra were clear, with her sweeping, Kleiber-esque movements also communicating her intentions understandably to the public. Her hands, with a precision coming close to that of martial arts, gave cues, encouraging a crescendo or indicating a diminuendo: in a word, they made music. There is an unmistakable freshness and genuine love of the music in her approach, an authenticity of feeling, which she can communicate to the musicians and the audience. This is a gift that far from all conductors have and which was appreciated by all. The orchestra seemed to rise to the occasion with excellent playing, especially in the brass section, prominent in the last movement.

The second part of the concert was devoted to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s very popular Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 with the Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, who has a strong history of political activism for her country in recent times. To everybody’s surprise, a couple in the front row stood up to sing the Venezuelan national anthem spontaneously as the concert was about to start. The audience listened politely to verses one and two, but then the conductor gave the downbeat for Tchaikowsky’s seminal work, its first thunderous bars drowning out any competition. Altogether, the interpretation by both conductor and pianist veered toward the brash, and was loud and intense. Gražinytė-Tyla took the first movement’s “Allegro con spirito” to the max and Montero’s visceral attack of the cadenza left little room for breath, continuing along this vein throughout the piece. It has been reported on social media that Montero was very touched and poured her soul into her playing this evening.

After her performance, the pianist addressed the public and part-explained, part-excused the interruption of the anthem-singing couple, briefly mentioning the difficult period her country is currently going through and stating that she is trying to stand by it with music making since “music is always about humanity”. The Komische Oper is known for being relaxed and folksy in its interaction with the public. This concert was a definite example of this attitude, which was much appreciated by the audience.