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Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla finds her tempo as classical's up-and-coming conductor

On the podium, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla is athletic and precise, authorative and cooperative.
Ed Crisostomo

Her name is Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, weird diacritical marks and all, and so people are starting to call her just Mirga to keep things simpler and safer. Born in Vilnius, Lithuania, less than 30 years ago, she is slender, not particularly tall and, one could even say, girlish in appearance, not exactly the type one expects to find on the podium of a major symphony orchestra. She was recently promoted from assistant to associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (effective at the end of this season). It’s looking like she’s more than a passing fancy. Perhaps we had better learn that last name after all.

Gražinyte-Tyla made her first splash locally in 2014, conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in her Hollywood Bowl debut. She followed it up in March with a well-received and sold-out subscription concert in Walt Disney Concert Hall. At a rehearsal with the orchestra over the summer in the same venue, it is easy to see the attraction. She’s confident on the podium without being pushy. She means business and yet smiles a lot. She’s comfortable and friendly leading the ensemble, and puts on no airs. “She’s so charming. She’s very nice,” a veteran Philharmonic musician says during a break.

On December 13, she’ll bring the orchestra down the freeway for its annual visit to Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall under the auspices of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. The program includes the suite from “The Golden Key” by the rarely heard Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg, the Violin Concerto No. 4 by Vieuxtemps (with Hilary Hahn as soloist) and the perennial Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky – music to put any young conductor through her paces.

“My father is a choir director. My mother is a pianist,” Gražinyte-Tyla says, speaking – thoughtfully, quietly, amiably – in her dressing room after the rehearsal. “At first, they wished their first daughter a real job, a well-based, well-paid job. So, not music was their first idea.” Throughout her childhood, though, she sat in on her father’s choir rehearsals and conducting lessons, and her grandmother’s violin lessons. It was always going to be hard to keep her out of it.

“In my family, the core of life, or the main point, was music,” she says. “Everything was happening somehow in connection to it. The very first wish, before the wish to become a musician, was actually to be in this core of life – so, to be in music.” At age 11, after a year of studying painting at National M. K. Ciurlionis School of Art, she declared her intentions for music, though she wasn’t sure exactly what kind of musician she would be. She didn’t play an instrument. She sang some, as a charming video on YouTube shows.
She ended up studying choral conducting with her father, who held a position in the music department of the school, and taking up piano to solidify her musicianship. “I’m not a great virtuoso,” she says of her pianistic prowess. “But I love to coach singers and to work with them.” Later, when studying choral conducting in Austria, she had some lessons in orchestral conducting. She was intrigued by it.

“I thought I would like to explore if instrumental music – which was less my home at that time, like choral music was – if I can love it in the same way.”

Unavoidably and inevitably, the subject of being a woman conductor arises.

“It’s so nice you started with other questions!” she says, laughing heartily. She doesn’t feel that orchestras treat her with any special degree of difference as a woman, but at any rate she says she really cannot know. “I’m not a man so I can’t even compare it,” she says. The public, on the other hand, still finds a degree of novelty in female conductors.

“There is a lot of this: Wow! A lady can conduct! I hear it very often, and I can understand it. At the same time, it’s a bit funny. But it’s clear why and where it comes from.”
She recalls a recent concert she conducted in Germany. (She and her partner, Peter, live in Heidelberg.)

“We had a concert with two great soloists, both ladies, and they called it ‘Ladies Night.’ ” She was OK with it. “But I thought” – here she makes a sound of aggravation – “there are also some other very interesting subjects to observe and to think about.”

Her gender and her youth would not seem to be much of an issue during her rehearsal with the LA Phil. The sheer physicality of her presence on the podium is immediately remarkable. Her motions are big but crisp and incisive. She plants her feet, bends her knees, and drives a phrase like a tennis player swinging through a forehand. She makes a fist and growls, asking for more vigor.

She treats the orchestra members as equals, as partners. She says “please” and “thank you.” Her verbal directions are brief and to the point. She seems to want to let the orchestra play through Rodion Shchedrin’s “Carmen Suite” – trusting their abilities to learn it, a sure way to win over musicians – more than to hear herself talk. At any rate, her baton is plenty expressive. The atmosphere is congenial. The rehearsal ends at the appointed time. “Thank you very much,” she says, smiles and shakes hands with the concertmaster.

The next night at the Hollywood Bowl, the cameras love her. Her image flashes on the big screens, her blond hair flowing like a rock star’s. Her motions are pure, though, motivated and motivating, not showboating. She’s fun to watch. More than that, she pulls off two rarely performed works, Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”), with violinist Alexandra Soumm, and the Shchedrin, thrillingly and convincingly. And that on a short rehearsal schedule. She hasn’t settled on a repertoire. For now, she’d like “to explore, to continue the exploration of what might be my repertoire later.”

Before now, she’s never conducted the works on her upcoming program in Orange County. “I’m so glad about the program. I’m so glad we have this Weinberg piece – a wonderful piece.”

It all seems to be happening so fast for Gražinyte-Tyla, who was also recently appointed music director of Salzburg’s Landestheater, where she’ll conduct opera. Her Philharmonic contract runs through the end of the 2017 season.

“I try to focus on my own development,” she says, trying not to get ahead of herself. She’s grateful to be working with the LA Phil – “with this incredible orchestra,” as she puts it – and grateful to be at the Landestheater. But it’s not time yet to pat herself on the back.
“We all definitely have successful moments … and the other ones,” she says.

“All of them are important.”

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