Review: Conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla lights up the San Diego Symphony with sparkling sonics

Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla
(Nancee E. Lewis)
Los Angeles Times Music Critic

By promoting assistant conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla to associate conductor next year, the Los Angeles Philharmonic hopes to hang on, at least for a little while, to a rising star. That little while is all it can hope for. Word is out, and orchestras in the market for a music director have begun the chase.

Over the weekend, the 29-year-old Lithuanian made an arresting debut with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, which will have an opening when Jahja Ling leaves after next season. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the prominent British orchestra that served as Simon Rattle’s steppingstone to the Berlin Philharmonic and Andris Nelsons’ to the Boston Symphony, needs someone now and hastily arranged a debut for Grazinyte-Tyla last summer. She is clearly on the shortlist, because a second date was added for next month. At least her publicity photo on the CBSO website has her standing in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall, where she happens to be conducting the L.A. Phil’s concerts this week.

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Whatever her San Diego appearance may or may not lead to, electricity was in the air Sunday afternoon at her third and final performance here at Copley Symphony Hall. This is not an easy place to generate said electricity. The too-large reconverted movie palace is incorporated into a bland corporate office building in a part of town that’s dead on the weekends. The acoustics are dryly unflattering.


But the crowd was large and charged. Many young people were on hand. And from the opening of Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 through Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with Karen Gomyo as soloist and, finally, in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Grazinyte-Tyla was able to convey extraordinary sonic immediacies.

In the Beethoven, she readily whipped up big orchestra excitement with audience-pleasing glee. But she also produced a profound sense of Nordic Sibelian stillness on a warm, sunny San Diego Sunday. A bass clarinet’s startling emergence from a Stravinskyan orchestral thicket was yet another of her sonic sleights of hand.

Wherever I’ve heard her — be it at the Hollywood Bowl drenched in amplification and or in Disney Hall’s transcendent acoustic, which leaves no place to hide — she’s managed to produce this effect of a direct contact with the sound of an orchestra. Some of that is careful attention to acoustics; the rest is the work of musical illusion. Two others who pull that trick off exceptionally well are Pierre Boulez and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The Beethoven was stunning, from the spellbindingly focused attention to quiet detail to remarkable rhythmic whip cracks. Grazinyte-Tyla shapes phrases with her slender long arms like a sculpture molding clay. (She may be petite, but when she reaches out to cue someone in the back of the orchestra, she makes it seem as though she can practically touch the player.)

Her Sibelius was exquisite, especially in its exploration of subtle color effects and dramatic surprise. As was the case last summer at the Hollywood Bowl, when the concerto was Bernstein’s “Serenade,” she had a domineering soloist. This was less of a problem with the Sibelius, simply because Gomyo’s old-school, big-toned, big-fingered virtuosity is so impressive. Still, the violinist made the concerto about nothing more than virtuosity, leaving Grazinyte-Tyla mainly to accommodate showmanship rather than investigate the quirky soundscape that underlies the concerto.

The “Rite” delivered expected excitement. Less common was its lush beauty, with Grazinyte-Tyla connecting Stravinsky’s not-always-brutal score to the French Impression that was the musical style in Paris, when the “Rite” had its premiere there in 1913.

Is there such a thing as a woman’s “Rite of Spring”? Although female conductors are no longer out of the ordinary, it is still rare for a woman to conduct the “Rite,” and it is without question a sexist ballet, what with a gang of old men getting indecently worked up over selecting and sacrificing a young virgin. A wonderful novelty in Grazinyte-Tyla’s interpretation was to emphasize the amusingly flatulent weirdness of low strings and winds in the dances for the Sage and Ancestors.


But the orchestral playing could be uneven, especially in the solos, and for all the effective fun in watching Grazinyte-Tyla stir up a large orchestra into a controlled frenzy, the frenzied large orchestra might have benefited from slightly less stirring and more centering.

Even so, what was right about her “Rite” — the strangeness, the reveling, and the lush lyricism — shows her where to go. Overall Grazinyte-Tyla got the most impressive playing I’ve heard from the San Diego Symphony. This is an orchestra with much potential. It has an impressive new managerial team with fresh programming ideas. If nothing else, Grazinyte-Tyla demonstrated that the right music director could make it a national contender.

And while we’re at it, let the city begin the discussion right now about the world-class concert hall it has long needed.



Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla

What: She next conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday


Tickets: $26.50-$203.50

Info: (323) 850-2000,