Review: A Conductor Takes a Victory Lap With Her Orchestra

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When Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, a rapidly rising young Lithuanian conductor, announced last year that she would step down from her post as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s music director, her statement had the euphemistic wording of a breakup.

“This is a deeply personal decision,” she said at the time, “reflecting my desire to step away from the organizational and administrative responsibilities of being a music director at this particular moment in my life and focusing more on my purely musical activities.”

But she was being honest: An outlier in classical music, at 36 she would rather dedicate time to her own interests and her growing family than be tied to an orchestra. When I met her in January, as she was preparing a new production of Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” in Munich as part of a year dedicated to various iterations of that opera, she said lightheartedly, “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.”

If more proof of Gražinytė-Tyla’s sincerity were needed, she has also delivered on the final part of her statement that “we shall continue to make music together in the coming years.” She is touring with the Birmingham, England, ensemble, now as its principal guest conductor. One of their stops was at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night: a program that was something of a victory lap not only for her six-season tenure with these players, but also for the group’s pandemic-delayed centennial celebrations from 2020.

Among those celebrations was a series of commissions that included Thomas Adès’s “The Exterminating Angel” Symphony, a four-movement adaptation of his 2016 opera that had its New York premiere on Saturday.

“The Exterminating Angel” is one of the great operas of our time — a work of wicked humor and dark beauty that befits both the 1962 Luis Buñuel film that inspired it and the overwhelming dread and instability we try to live with today. (Now, its story of surreal, indefinite imprisonment in a single room comes off as prescient and all too familiar.) The sound world Adès conjures throughout is dramaturgically airtight: shifting harmonies, the eeriness of an ondes Martenot, dense forces of cosmic immensity.

It’s a lot to take in, and there have been few opportunities; “The Exterminating Angel” is an expensive production, with a sprawling principal cast and an orchestra of Wagnerian heft. Adès conducted the American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 2017, and given the house’s unreliable continued support of contemporary work, however successful, it’s difficult to imagine a revival any time soon.

Thankfully, Adès has made further music from the score: the solo piano Berceuse, written for Kirill Gerstein, and this symphony, which cleverly echoes the opera without excerpting it. Gone is the eerie ondes Martenot, though it lives on in swinging glissandos in the strings; still intact, however, is the opera’s excess and horror, made all the more unsettling by the orchestra’s coolly crisp, virtually objective delivery on Saturday.

The first movement, “Entrances,” nods at the grotesquerie and layered textures of the opening scene; “March,” from an interlude between Acts I and II, could just as easily be called “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Firing Squad,” with martial terrors reminiscent of Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony. The grim lyricism of Adès’s love songs and lullabies returns with another Berceuse, followed by the finale, “Waltzes,” a rhapsodic assemblage that evolves into a relentless danse macabre analogue to the opera itself.

Had the symphony not come after an intermission, it would have been a whiplash response to the work that opened the program: Elgar’s sparely orchestrated and often quiet Cello Concerto in E minor, featuring Sheku Kanneh-Mason as the soloist. He’s an expressive musician, who defaults to a wide, emotive vibrato — especially in his encore, a harmonious arrangement of Bach’s “Komm, süsser Tod” for five cellists. Gražinytė-Tyla deferred to him as the concerto’s narrator, with modest accompaniment and rarely blooming grandeur.

And a compelling narrator he was. Kanneh-Mason plays with the seeming spontaneity that can come only from extreme discipline, but also a freedom that occasionally slides into flawed intonation. And in a work as plain-spoken as the Elgar, his elevated articulation was more Shakespeare than, say, the Chekhov it should have been. But all that could be forgiven for the sheer charisma of his performance.

The most traditional showcase of the Birmingham ensemble’s sound under Gražinytė-Tyla was in Debussy’s “La Mer,” which closed the evening in a transparent interpretation that revealed the piece’s rich, subtly maximal orchestration. Gražinytė-Tyla’s reading wasn’t the most volatile, but it was revealing in its clarity, balancing texture upon texture below a gracefully buoyant melody in the brasses or winds.

Players in every section of the orchestra responded to her gestures — sometimes efficiently small, sometimes evocative of a swerve or plunge — with lived-in ease. Gražinytė-Tyla might not be attached to them full time, but neither is she fully detached. Whatever she has decided to do, to reconcile her own interests with that of this orchestra, it’s working.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Performed on Saturday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.


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