“Let us be proud of this city. Let us be proud of this great orchestra. Let us work and dream together.” These were the words of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s new music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, in the wake of her gripping reading of Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major. This rousing call to a packed auditorium was followed by a moving and beautiful encore in the form of Svajoné (Dream), a miniature for strings by Lithuanian composer, Juozas Naujalis. The words, and the encore, were warmly received and they augur well for the conductor’s relationship with the audience, the orchestra and, indeed, Birmingham.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla © Vern Evans
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© Vern Evans

I suspect local audiences will be hearing a fair amount of Lithuanian music from now on. This is surely no bad thing on the strength of the compositions presented by Gražinytė-Tyla in this concert. The opening work, Fires by Raminta Šerkšnytė, was composed around a century later than Svajoné, in 2010. I can’t have been the only one keenly listening out for its references to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony having read that the composer had integrated motifs from this work (its première had featured alongside that most recognisable of pieces). The most obvious was the dramatic ‘da-da-da-dum’ ending but I suspect the other references were more subtle.

Scored for a large orchestra, the work begins with violins playing in fifths – not far away harmonically from the opening of Mahler’s First – with the numerous percussion instruments playing an important part from the outset. String lines gradually become more sinuous and chromatic before flourishes from the woodwind begin to permeate the texture, ahead of bombastic tutti interruptions. Gražinytė-Tyla gives nothing away in her conducting style ahead of such dramatic outbursts and perhaps this is how she so successfully maintains tension through passages of relative calm. Also remarkable is her ability to return so gracefully from her more animated gestures to stiller ones, which would count for little were it not for the resultant effect in the orchestra: almost perfect transitions from vigorously energetic to tranquil playing.

Fires is a work I would like to hear again. I particularly enjoyed the increasingly insistent, mocking, muted trombone ‘wah-wahs’ towards the end of the piece and I have a feeling Gražinytė-Tyla did, too. She was wont to bring out these more sinister, fantastical, elements in the Mahler as well, particularly the Klezmer-style trumpets and clarinets in the third movement and the foreboding repeated bass notes in the first. This was Mahler a world away from her CBSO predecessor’s. There were no mannerisms or self-aware kitsch moments (kitsch has its place in Mahler, of course). The scherzo second movement powered on through, for instance, without parody.

This work is a bold early choice for a conductor as it is difficult to make it hang together coherently compared with most of Mahler’s other symphonies but, coherent it was, with Gražinytė-Tyla silently insisting that the audience really listens to passages of less apparent importance. The finale really was thrilling, throughout. It was not a flawless performance – I doubt I’ve ever heard one of this work live – but it felt like risks were taken and I’d rather that any day. All sections of the orchestra had their glories, not least the second violins, liberated to the outside right of the stage as Mahler himself would have recognised in his day.

As, indeed, would Haydn, whose Symphony no. 6 ‘Le Matin’ also featured. For this, the string forces were reduced in number and the wind players brought forward to stand just behind. Clearly, Gražinytė-Tyla is not going to do things conventionally (she had been unafraid to utilise the whole double bass section for the opening of the third movement of the Mahler). This is music written with concertante-like solos throughout. The flute lines were exquisitely played and we were treated to excellent solos from violin, cello, bassoon and even double bass. Gražinytė-Tyla successfully brought out the sheer joy and all the jolly surprises that the master symphonist wrote into this music.

The new music director is making relatively few appearances with the orchestra in her first season, no doubt due to prior commitments, and so I’ve no doubt that every one of these is going to be keenly anticipated by some very proud Brummies. I’d advise booking ahead!