A conductor in demand, and in control

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A conductor in demand, and in control
Gražinyte-Tyla rehearses at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich on Jan. 19, 2022. Gražinytė-Tyla is a leading contender for top posts at American orchestras. But that doesn’t mean she’s interested. Roderick Aichinger/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

MUNICH.- Let’s get this out of the way: Don’t expect Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla to be the music director of a major American orchestra any time soon.

“At the moment, I will be much more content to be a simple freelancer,” Gražinytė-Tyla, 35, said in a recent interview at the Bavarian State Opera here, where she was preparing a new production of Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.”

It’s an unusual statement coming from a young conductor in demand, especially one whose current appointment — as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Britain — concludes this spring. Even more unusual since Gražinytė-Tyla, along with the likes of Susanna Mälkki, is often mentioned as a leading contender to fill vacancies on the horizon at top American orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic.

But as administrators search for a conductor of her stature, as well as for someone to tip the scale of gender balance in the United States — where there won’t be any female music directors among the country’s 25 largest orchestras until Nathalie Stutzmann starts with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra next season — Gražinytė-Tyla is a defiant rarity: an anti-careerist who has resisted industry pressure in favor of artistic and personal fulfillment.

Her star might be on the rise, but she is keeping it on a short leash. Gražinytė-Tyla designed her calendar this season so that it was dominated by “The Cunning Little Vixen” — both in concert, as in Birmingham, England, and staged, as in Munich. She has retained a remarkable amount of control over her schedule, ensuring time for family: her partner and two sons in Salzburg, Austria, with a third child on the way. (The Birmingham orchestra recently announced that, because of the pregnancy, she would no longer conduct her planned final concerts in June.)

“She’s very in tune with herself,” said Barrie Kosky, who directed the new “Vixen,” which runs through Feb. 15. “She’s very sure her decisions are the right decisions for her. She couldn’t care less about all the tra-la-la.”

Born to a family of professional musicians in Lithuania, and finding early success with the baton, Gražinytė-Tyla (pronounced grah-zhin-EE-tay teel-AH) was teed up for the typical life of a conductor: jet-setting hustle and steppingstone appointments — leading, perhaps, to a prestige podium.

But she also long had a streak of independence. She began to study music formally at 11 against the wishes of her parents, who wanted to spare her the difficulties of an artistic life. Although experienced as a singer, she wasn’t a trained instrumentalist, so she joined the only school program that was available: conducting. She was a natural and, at 16, took first prize at a Lithuanian competition.

“I remember thinking, Oh no, what am I going to do now?” Gražinytė-Tyla said. “There was this pressure, and I knew it would be so hard to maintain that level. It was a huge challenge, but also a mix of joy and responsibility.”

The pressure didn’t end there. Completing her studies, adding Tyla (the Lithuanian word for silence) to her professional name, and winning the Salzburg Young Conductors Award, she was then given a fellowship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she would go on to serve as an assistant, then associate, conductor. She first appeared with the CBSO in summer 2015, and by the following January had been appointed its music director.

The speed of all that, Gražinytė-Tyla said, “puts you into shape and can give you a good kick to do something fast.” But, she added, it also made her value an introspective pause. “I think it is incredibly important to stay very aware of what is happening inside, because a person shouldn’t be a machine, and shouldn’t be a little part of this big mechanism that says, ‘You go this way and this way.’ ”

“People are different,” she continued. “But I think I need time where I am not studying or conducting or traveling or rehearsing to just be a whole human being.”

A breakthrough came during a conversation with violinist Gidon Kremer. She recalled him telling her that her career would always feel like it had two different doors. Behind one would be record labels, managers, festivals and a variety of conflicting demands; behind the other, “all your dreams are there, and your imagination, and the things you can go for and explore.”

She has opened both doors. Insistently private, she speaks strategically, at times even euphemistically, about her home life. Her partner hasn’t been publicly identified beyond having a job with the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg; in the interview, she referred to family time as “human relations.”

Yet she did take the job in Birmingham, which has a high profile and a reputation as a star-maker, with such recent music directors as Simon Rattle and Andris Nelsons. A recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon followed her appointment. In both cases, she was a first: as a woman on the Birmingham podium and as a female conductor with that storied label. Those milestones were noted publicly, Gražinytė-Tyla said, but only in passing.

“This is something that our generation has to be incredibly grateful for,” she said, referring to the struggles of female conductors. “There have been a lot of painful memories for our colleagues in the past, and I have had some small experiences myself, but nothing in the amount that someone in Susanna Mälkki’s generation had to go through.” (Mälkki is 52.)

Gražinytė-Tyla was warmly received by the players in Birmingham, said Oliver Janes, a clarinetist with the ensemble. “She has this rehearsal technique where you forget you’ve ever played a piece before,” he added. “And once you’ve completely forgotten how it goes, you feel like you’re starting again.”

She also, he said, gave the orchestra — and its public — a jolt. At their first BBC Proms appearance under her direction, they encored with Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty,” and the moment it ended she shouted to the audience inside the vast Royal Albert Hall in London, “See you in Birmingham!”

She has released several Deutsche Grammophon recordings with the orchestra, including as part of a benchmark pairing of symphonies by the often overlooked Mieczyslaw Weinberg — a reflection, she said, of her tendency to take a project-based approach to conducting. Just as there will be more Weinberg to come, she is in the midst of a “Vixen” immersion.

“I am totally aware that this is a complete luxury,” she said. “Some people see the profession of a conductor as: You have to be incredibly fast and know all the repertoire. These are fantastic qualities. On the other hand, for myself I only can say I believe less and less I could be such a type of conductor.”

Over time and multiple performances, she added, “Vixen” has revealed its “incredible jewels and connections” to her. Janes, the clarinetist, said that in Birmingham, she knew every corner of the text, to the point where, “if all the singers went ill, she could do the whole concert and sing every part.”

When Kosky started planning the Munich production with Gražinytė-Tyla, he said, she wanted their first conversation to be about text, “which delighted me from the top of my head to my toes.”

“I said to her, ‘That’s all the work,’ ” he added. “The work itself is how the text is propelled by the music. She breathes the text, and she breathes with the music. Without that in Janacek, you’re dead.”

Text was central even at her recent rehearsals with the Bavarian State Opera’s orchestra. Standing at the podium, her small frame belying a deep voice that commands as easily as it lets out booming laughter, she alternated between straightforward notes and explaining scenes in detail — especially in relation to Kosky’s staging. She later did the same when the cast joined for the sitzprobe, the first meeting of the singers and instrumentalists.

Tenor Jonas Hacker, singing the role of the Schoolmaster, said that Gražinytė-Tyla’s directions tend to be “very color-motivated” and that she “breaks things down into tiny segments,” which, he added, comes from the score itself: “Janacek tends to be so fragmented, she’ll just take a few bars and figure out really what is the text saying and what its mood is, and really taking the time.”

Throughout, Kosky said, he has remained convinced that she is “a theater person, which to me is so fundamental.”

“There aren’t many opera conductors in the world,” he added. “You can be a great symphony conductor and be a lousy opera conductor. And there is an absolute shortage of genuinely talented opera conductors. It’s a bit of a worry; get your truffle pig out at the moment. But Mirga is one of them.”

Gražinytė-Tyla hasn’t announced future performances beyond a brief revival of “Vixen” during the Munich Opera Festival this summer. But for now, she is confident that whatever follows will not be a long-term post with any orchestra.

“The luxury to focus on the ‘Vixen’ — I think it will remain a very important point for me to deal with certain repertoire in the rhythm I feel is the right one, right now, for me,” she said, adding with a hearty laugh: “I’m not sure the big orchestras will be interested in having me if I say I’ll do only ‘Vixen’ for the whole season.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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