When I got the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s email informing me that one of their former Dudamel Conducting Fellows, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, had been selected as the orchestra’s Assistant Conductor, the first thing I thought was, “Oh, good for her.” The second thing I thought was, as a diacriticly-challenged English-speaker, “Wait — how exactly do you say that name?”
I reached out to the LA Phil’s Public Relations folks for help, and here’s the pronunciation guidance I received (say it with me now): “Mear-Ga Gra-chin-tee-eh Tee-La“
Yeah, classical music fans are gonna wanna practice that because, on the strength of her work last week at the Hollywood Bowl conducting the orchestra in Mahler’s First Symphony, you’re likely to hear and say it much more frequently in the future. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is the real deal.
For starters, the Lithuanian native certainly acted the part of a big-time conductor. Her demeanor was confident without being cocky. She picked her desired spot on the podium, planted her feet shoulder width apart and stood with ramrod straight posture, then rarely deviated from that pose. She kept a clear beat and gave easy-to-follow cues to the musicians. In bigger moments, she often favored broad, back-and-forth sweeping motions, with both arms moving in parallel fully extended in front of her.
Her facial expressions — which would have been impossible to see without the Bowl’s HD video screens — were engaging. She frequently could be seen smiling, but never ingratiatingly so. Most importantly, her rapport with the orchestra seemed strong and genuine, and because she conducted the Mahler symphony from memory, she was able to use her eyes to lead the orchestra as much as her hands. She put all of this to good use in an interpretation that was fresh and enlightening.
Mahler labeled the first movement “Langsam. Sluggish. Wie Ein Naturlaut — Im Anfang Sehr Gemächlich (Slow. Dragging. Like a Sound of Nature — In the beginning very leisurely),” but Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla’s approach felt more like a brisk walk on the beach: she favored a relatively healthy pace yet somehow also managed to retain a casual and relaxed air.
The second and third movements were also taken at a quicker-than-usual clip, but without ever seeming rushed or oddly-shaped: the ländler had a playful bounce, swaggering one moment and sauntering the next; the slow movement that followed felt more like an introspective respite than the funereal Frère Jacques it usually is. It wasn’t until the fourth movement did she ask for anything close to extremes in terms of dynamics. The result was arresting, making the slow build-up and eventual triumphant finale more gratifying.
In all four movements, she brought out details that you wouldn’t usually notice, especially in lower voices — a bassoon line here, a trombone part there. When she shifted tempos, she pushed and pulled at them like an old pro and made transitions sound completely organic. No philosophical depths needed to be plumbed, no guts were wrenched, and no bright flashes illuminated any kind of transcendence. Instead, Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla managed to turn the “Titan” into a charming creature, and it was a masterful feat.
Of course, a big part of the reason why it worked was because the orchestra gave her everything she asked for and more. They responded to her requests with conviction, and sounded taught and polished throughout, a rough edge here and there notwithstanding. In the end, they offered her their own earnest ovation. Considering the limited rehearsal time during the Hollywood Bowl season, the collective achievements of conductor and orchestra were even more noteworthy.
Yet as impressive as Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla was with the Mahler First Symphony, there is one small cautionary flag to raise before she is anointed as the latest conducting phenom — and that comes, of all things, due to her incredibly sullen take on The Star-Spangled Banner which opened the concert. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a version of the anthem done within the borders of the United States where that level of technical proficiency in the orchestra paired with such misguided pacing and shaping from the podium. Maybe the reason she made the third movement of the Mahler sound less dirge-like is because she had already played that mortuarial card at the very beginning of the concert (I kid).
OK, I’ll admit that The Star-Spangled Banner is no masterpiece, and if it got more than a cursory run-through during rehearsal, I’d be surprised. That said, she made some very clear choices with this piece, and unfortunately, most of them were wrong. She obviously hasn’t studied it as much as the Mahler (which, remember, she conducted without need of a score), so if one were prone to be overly pessimistic, you could use this as a proxy for works of music which she hasn’t studied, and question her instincts. That may be extrapolating too far, but I guess we’ll find out in the coming years. For now, I’d prefer to give her the benefit of the doubt, forget the anthem, and revel in her Mahler.
Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla was not the only member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic family whose name appeared on the Hollywood Bowl marquee. Robert deMaine, the orchestra’s Principal Cello, was making his own front-and-center debut on this night, having joined the orchestra in Spring of 2013.
Since then, he’s quickly become a fixture in the orchestra, having gained tenure just a few months after his arrival. Given his performance in the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, it was easy to understand why. His sound makes you think of an athlete in cashmere: muscular at the core, precise in movement, yet wrapped in a warm, smooth, and luxurious exterior.
His partner in Brahmsian crime this evening, violinist Alina Pogostkina, was making her Bowl debut as well. A relatively late replacement for an indisposed Hillary Hahn, she brought a similarly pure and unfussy brand of playing as the more famous soloist for whom she took over. Her interplay with Mr. deMaine was friendly and natural, with a level of politeness and deference you’d expect given the lack of familiarity between the two of them. I look forward to seeing her again under more conventional circumstances. Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla and orchestra supported violinist and cellist with grace.
Random other thoughts:
- The third movement of the Mahler First Symphony usually opens with a bass solo playing the opening theme. On this night, Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla chose to have the entire bass section play the phrase — a less frequent, if not uncommon choice by other conductors.
- Karl Pituch, Principal Horn of the Detroit Symphony, sat in as guest principal horn for the Mahler. He’s appeared with the LA Phil many times previously. Playing first chair during the Brahms was Eric Overholt, Associate Principal Horn of the LA Phil, who is back this summer after having taken leave the past year.
- Attendance was 7,122.
- When Mr. deMaine first joined the orchestra, he began playing the General Kyd Stradivarius cello owned by the LA Phil and an instrument he calls “one of the jewels of the Philharmonic’s crown.” During a recent Twitter chat, he mentioned that “The General” was “not in optimal playing condition. It is currently having some crucial restoration work, and will be back onstage at Disney Hall in the fall.” In the meantime, he’s been playing two of his own cellos: a Villaume, and more recently, “an early 18th-century Venetian instrument thought to be a Domenico Busan with a Goffriller top” which he says ” *smokes* the Vuillaume…and almost every other instrument.”
- David Ng’s visit and interview with Mr. deMaine, originally published in the Los Angeles Times, is worth a read.
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor
Alina Pogostkina, violin
Robert deMaine, cello
Brahms: The Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major
- Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla with scarf: photo by Martin Chalifour
- Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla in black: courtesy of IMG Artists
- Robert deMaine: photo by Mathew Imaging
- Alina Pogostkina: photo by 25 Stunden Publishing
- Hollywood bowl marquee: photo by CK Dexter Haven