The announcement Thursday that a 29-year-old assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic will become the next music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is a very big deal for the cause of female conductors and for the ever-expanding influence of the L.A. Phil.
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla has been a sensation at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall. Her debut with the Seattle Symphony in December 2014 and with the San Diego Symphony a year later supposedly got both orchestras fantasizing about her as their next music director. I've heard rumblings that the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra — which, like San Diego, is searching for a new music director — has had its eye on her even though she has yet to conduct the ensemble. Any of these would be a reasonable first orchestra job for a young conductor to learn repertory and the music director business.
But Birmingham got her. England's second largest city may seem off the beaten track, but not when it comes to orchestras. When Simon Rattle, at 25, became music director in 1980, he put himself, the CBSO and even the city of Birmingham on the map. He remained 18 years. He built a concert hall that is the best in Britain. He made top-selling recordings with the orchestra. Sometimes it seemed he got more attention from the London press than the more famous London orchestras did. He went from Birmingham to the Berlin Philharmonic, where he holds the most prestigious job in the profession.
Birmingham then became a stepping-stone for a young Finn, Sakari Oramo, who is now music director of the BBC Symphony. Last season, Oramo's young successor, Andris Nelsons, went from Birmingham to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he is having great success. What happens in Birmingham does not stay in Birmingham.
The CBSO, of course, knows the stakes are high with Grazinyte-Tyla. A former Dudamel Fellow with the L.A. Phil, she is still an assistant, although she becomes the orchestra's associate conductor for a year in July. And she will begin in Birmingham in the fall. Last year she became music director of a small opera company in Salzburg, Austria, the Landestheater. She has yet to make her debut with many major orchestras or opera companies.
But with Grazinyte-Tyla, who is Mirga to L.A. and shortly will be to the world, it tends to be love at first sight just about everywhere she goes. When she made her Hollywood Bowl debut with the L.A. Phil in August 2014, the electricity was instantly on. Birmingham fell for her in a flash last summer and scheduled a special concert last month to be sure. The orchestra is sure. So am I. She is simply the most exciting young conductor to come along since Gustavo Dudamel.
Still, those stakes really are high, especially in what her new job means for women. She has had trailblazers before her. Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, has risen the highest. Britain knows Alsop well, having been music director of the Bournemouth Symphony and lately a favorite to lead the Last Night of the Proms, a popular national event watched on television by millions.
There are high hopes for Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki, chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic. Malkki formerly led France's leading new music ensemble, Ensemble Intercontemporain, where she didn't, I'm told, have the easiest time as a woman. One of the best early music conductors is Emmanuelle Haim; she too has had issues with sexism in her native France. The Australian Simone Young headed the Hamburg opera and philharmonic from 2005 to 2015. These are first-rate musicians. But there is one tier higher in the conducting world. Grazinyte-Tyla has a charisma and spark that makes her the most likely woman to first reach the top.
But she is still at the point where she needs time and nurturing, and she will have to do her learning in the limelight. The British press will watch her closely, which can be a mixed blessing. This includes an avid crew of competing music critics, some highly respectable, others with a more tabloid sensibility. There is the danger of her being built up too soon and then, in reaction, taken down, also too soon.
Grazinyte-Tyla is a born conductor and a mesmerizing one. But she is still green. The L.A. Phil gives her breaks, letting her find her way as she goes along, especially when it come to deciding on tempos. That is as it should be. She has to be allowed to make mistakes and grow. This was the case in L.A. with Zubin Mehta, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Dudamel. I hope the Brits will give her the rope she needs. If she doesn't succeed, that's life. If she does, that's history. It's worth the risk.
But the examples of Mehta, Salonen and Dudamel also mean that she would do well to continue to be our Mirga, that she use her time here to experiment and be mentored and, most important, that she keep the relationship going.
The L.A. Phil is having a remarkable effect on the musical world. It is hardly a coincidence that both Grazinyte-Tyla and the L.A. Phil's previous associate conductor, Lionel Bringuier — who is the same age as Grazinyte-Tyla and who became music director of the Zurich Tonhalle in Switzerland last season — are now the two youngest heads of major orchestras in Europe.
The L.A. Phil is actively developing and sending young musicians out all over the world, as the world will discover when Dudamel and the L.A. Phil's youth orchestra, YOLA, appear on the Super Bowl halftime show Sunday.
The Birmingham appointment is wonderful, if a little worrying, news. Too soon is better than too late. My money is on Mirga. Happily, I'm not alone.