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Music

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: 'Music can build cultural identity'

The young Lithuanian is a member of a rare species: female conductors. To her however, the topic of gender is less important than the social and political power of music. As she tells DW, it has to do with her heritage.

The Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, the Australian Simone Young, the Estonian Anu Tali and the American Marin Alsop: women conductors are clearly emerging, yet still a clear minority. A list of the world's 150 leading conductors on the "Bachtrack" website includes only five females.

Slender, small and just 30 years old, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is a conductor of delicate nuance who nonetheless can unleash orchestral storms - as recently heard at the festival Heidelberg Spring, when she stepped in for Paavo Järvi. Her term as principal conductor of the renowned City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England begins in September 2016, and she also serves as Assistant Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel.

Deutsche Welle: On short notice, you had to replace the conductor in a concert by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. What's your impression of the orchestra?

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: An incredibly musical one! When I stand there, I see how the heart of each individual in it veritably jumps out. I'd only heard the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie live in concert once before, two years ago, here at Heidelberg Spring. Afterwards I thought: goodness, what musicianship, what a spirit! Each member feels responsible, each loves what he or she is doing. To experience that first-hand is an unbelievable gift.

You come from Lithuania. Is music important there?

We have a special culture and tradition of singing, and that is what helped us regain our human rights. In the 20th century - and before, when the czars ruled in Russia -, our country was oppressed in many different ways. I don't think that nationalism is the most interesting concept for humanity, but if a nation is suppressed or occupied, that's just wrong. Song and singing paved the way to freedom for the Baltic countries - and not only there. They helped form our cultural identity. That's probably why so many choirs were established in the late 19th century - and for them, they needed a lot of conductors. A system grew from which we still benefit today: there are more than five schools in the country where you can start to learn choral conducting at age 13. They joke that every second citizen of Lithuania is a choral conductor, even though they are not all professionals of course.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting an orchestra. Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Vennenbernd

Leading a concert in Bonn in 2010 at a workshop for young conductors

Was it always clear to you that you would become a conductor?

My father is a choral conductor and my mother a pianist. They wanted to steer me away from music, thinking that it's not a secure profession. But they took me along to their rehearsals anyway, to concerts and conducting lessons. I had that instead of kindergarten. Then at one point, music was the only profession I could imagine. And as a conductor, you're simultaneously with music and with people. Both are very important to me.

How do you communicate with the musicians? Do you use words, gestures, your eyes? Or is it more a matter of stage presence, of aura?

It's a matter of getting a sense of the spirit and character of each orchestra - be it one you're experiencing for the first time, or even if you're re-meeting an orchestra you've been with before. You find out how to work with them: what do they give, and what can I contribute to that?

When you're up there in front of different orchestras - the ones in Birmingham, Bremen or Los Angeles - do you perceive distinctly different collective personalities?

It's incredibly exciting to observe these differences. But even a city has its own personality. For a while, I worked mainly in Salzburg and Los Angeles. I love both, yet can hardly imagine two more different cities.

In music you find the perfect union of qualities that are generally considered masculine or feminine. Take Beethoven for example: strength and purpose, then tenderness and empathy. Can a woman conductor maybe bring out aspects of music we're not used to hearing from your male colleagues?

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Photo: Imago/Becker&Bredel

She has also served as music director of the Salzburg State Theater

It's interesting to note that usually, when I hear this question, it starts with an apology! That's probably a good sign. If that question was posed to a woman conductor 50 years ago, it would probably have been phrased differently - if in fact they asked at all. That means we're moving in the right direction towards that perfect union you refer to.

The only thing that counts is to feel authentic and be what you are. I feel very free and have rarely experienced discrimination. I feel very fortunate and have trailblazing women colleagues to thank for that.

One statement really touched me recently though. A few months ago we gave a family concert in Los Angeles. Afterwards, several Latino mothers came up to me and said, "Thank you so much that we had the chance to experience this concert under your baton. It's so good for our daughters." Then somebody else added, "and for our sons!"

Rick Fulker spoke with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla in Heidelberg.

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