She's a Rising Star on the Podium: Meet Mirga!

Feb 9, 2018

Music was her family business, but conducting became her very own dream job. Now known worldwide, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla turned to conducting when she was 11 because she was too old to begin studying an instrument. And look where she is now...

At 31, she's conducted operas, major orchestras, and choral groups all over the world, and has followed in the footsteps of Simon Rattle and others as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony in England.   

She's guest conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra on Friday, February 9 and Saturday, February 10 at the Kimmel Center. The program includes Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 and Mahler Symphony No. 4

Born in Lithuania in 1986, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla had music all around her:  Her father, a choir conductor, her mother a pianist and singer, her grandmother a violinist, great uncle an organist and great aunt a composer.  Yet at first, she was not groomed for a career in music. Relaxing after a rehearsal in her dressing room backstage at the Kimmel Center, she chatted with WRTI’s Susan Lewis. 

Q: You have a very musical family. How did you become a conductor?

A: This was a little bit of funny story. Although being so surrounded by music, my parents thought their first kid should rather have a secure profession, so they didn't let me learn anything except a lot of singing ...  I was 11 when I said, wait a minute, I can’t imagine anything for my profession, only music. …

With 11 you are supposed already to be a little Mozart, and I was only able to sing.  So the only chance for me to enter that special school was to try for choral conducting. So I did that, and I continued.

Q: It seems ridiculous that we have to talk about this in 2018, that there are so few women conductors. Did that fact deter you, did you see that as a challenge you or did it affect you at all?

A: Well, I think in the 1950’s we barely had any women in orchestras, women musicians and this is not at all the case now.  So in 50 years it will look much different.

Q: What’s been your experience as a woman on the podium?

A: I have to say… doing what I do, I feel [like] a musician … and I feel [like] a growing human being …  I am not thinking, I am a woman, how should I act or do this or that.

Q: What’s the most fun thing about being a conductor?

Communication is a huge fun thing.  Communication with the composer, either dead or alive. With the musicians. With the audience.  And I think this might be the crucial function also of music: to connect us.

Q: In 2016 you were named Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony orchestra. How are you enjoying that?

A: This is such a gift to be with them, an incredible orchestra. And it's not even yet two years that we are working together. They are wonderful musicians, and at the same time, so … communicative human beings.   And in fact, communication seems to be ... what we do together.  And how it grows and  develops through touring and concerts and our Debussy festival in March … It's wonderful to dream together and also to ask ourselves, together, what are we doing, why are we here, and what are our main goals?

Also in the city what can we do to work on Birmingham’s multicultural aspect – it’s one million,  which for Europe is really a lot. And it is so mixed. There are not many European cities where you have such a mixed culture, which is a huge value.  We have a lot of Indian people, Asian people, also African ones.  And how to come together; how to share the things of the different cultures..  

Q: Sometimes we talk about the role of music in our world. It’s not just entertainment.

A: Well, it can be - and it's one of the nice functions – entertainment … but the potential of music is so much bigger.

Q: In today’s world, with young people having so many options for so much entertainment, and social media … Do you have any thoughts about how classical music should engage with people in any different way from the way it’s been done for decades?

A: I think it should totally go for the most adventurous experiments.  Go out of halls; going to the people, to kindergartens, to hospitals. Which is happening a lot; a lot of orchestra, a lot of musicians try those things and then they think this is such a great direction. e must be as adventurous as we can in this very traditional world of classical music.

At the same time, it's so funny -- entertainment seems to be a very important word for our time.

But, for example,  you put a seed into the earth, or … the core of an apple. You put it there and the next day you just see the ground. The second day, the third day also, and many, many days you don’t see anything else.  But after a certain while, if all the circumstances are the right ones, you see suddenly a small, small something coming out, and growing, growing, growing, a tree with beautiful blossoms coming out, and  the delicious fruits coming out, and the whole garden.

And this is the potential of music— this is what it can do for us.