It’s no secret that at the top of my wish-list in the search for a successor to Andris Nelsons as CBSO music director were two veteran conductors, the American Andrew Litton and the Dutchman Jac van Steen. Both are highly experienced, much-loved by the orchestra and indeed its audience, and were unlikely at this point in their well-established careers to be lured into moving elsewhere.
But then last July, a concert slotted into a “dead” part of the musical year brought Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla to our attention, and my whole perspective changed.
It was a stunning account of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, always a searching benchmark, which made me (and indeed the players) sit up and take notice. And when late in the autumn it was announced that a hastily-arranged concert was being shoe-horned into the regular calendar in order to bring the young Lithuanian conductor back in front of the orchestra, the buzz began that something special was on the cards.
So on the second Sunday in January Mirga reappeared, conducting a programme which put so many skills to the test: phrasing with a flexibility which allowed orchestral soloists to make telling contributions, collaborating with a young pianist in one of the world’s best-known concertos (and one not without its pitfalls), and making sense of the jagged structures and kaleidoscopic colours of a gritty large-scale work.
She triumphed spectacularly, to huge audience acclaim (and it was a nice bonus to hear the measured clarity of her speaking voice as she informed us of a change in movement-order), and the players seemed highly enthused, too.
It helps that she so obviously enjoys conducting, relishing the partnership she shares with her colleagues. It was charming to see her beaming and silently applauding the delivery of important solos, and to see her beaming with pleasure as every effect came off successfully.
Enthusiasm is one thing, but how about the skills? Well, Mirga, though still barely 30 is already highly experienced in a variety of fields - opera and choral, as well as orchestral - and her conducting technique has an armoury of styles appropriate to whatever the music demands.
She can beat time with acute precision, or swoop and persuade balletically (much in the manner of Nelsons - perhaps it’s a Baltic trait). She can shape structures with a clear sense of direction, and she can point rhythmic detail with witty verve. To everything she tackles she brings an irresistible freshness and a sense that this is right for this moment.
By no means is Mirga a Nelsons clone, despite some of these similarities. She is certainly her own person, with ideas that she wants to share with players and audience alike, such as last July’s insertion of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville into a suite from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.
So now I’ve changed my tune, and I hope Messrs. Litton and van Steen won’t be offended. I think Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla would be a wonderful choice as the CBSO’s next music director, making her own individual mark just as Rattle, Oramo and Nelsons did before her.
The field in the CBSO stakes seems to be narrowing, with another strong contender possibly coming up on the rails in another hastily-arranged concert on Saturday, January 16. Omer Meir Wellber first appeared with the orchestra in November, and has now been recalled for a programme consisting of Schubert’s Third Symphony and Shostakovich’s Sixth - a menu markedly different in its demands from that served up by Mirga.
The nature of the event, too, differs from Mirga’s public concert. Saturday’s concert will be shorter and semi-private, for invited guests and patrons who have already attended that afternoon’s CBSO matinee. People might wonder whether there is anything significant in these differences.
One thing is certain. Scrutiny on the young man will be acute, perhaps even more so after Mirga’s success. No pressure there, then.