Mirga Returns to LA for the Worst of Times, the Best of Times

By TIMOTHY MANGAN, Musical America, April 8, 2019

The Los Angeles Philharmonic program, Saturday night (April 6) in Disney Concert Hall, perhaps by chance, featured a trio of women, including a female soloist, a female conductor and a female composer of the world premiere. In a season, the orchestra’s centennial, chocked full of weekly surprises and innovations, few seemed to notice the newsworthiness of the triumvirate.

On the podium, returning to the space of some of her first triumphs, was Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, the young Lithuanian music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and former assistant conductor here. Unbeknownst no doubt to many in the large crowd was that they probably wouldn’t be seeing her again anytime soon. Gražinytė-Tyla, a new mother, recently announced she has cancelled all guest conducting engagements for the next two years in order to better care for her child.

It was the best of times, it the worst of times, only in reverse order. The worst came first. A performance this bad of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto has to be intentional, not inadvertent. But it was impossible to tell exactly what the intentions were of Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whether she actually liked the old warhorse or was sending it up.

With music on the stand before her, and shoes off her feet below her, exaggeration and distortion were Kopatchinskaja’s key. It began from the get-go, with Tchaikovsky’s eloquent announcement of the soloist’s arrival, which Kopatchinskaja played softly, slowly and very freely, chopping its phrases into little bits. Mostly this was her bit, playing things slowly, considering them, toying with them, as a cat with its prey. Her exaggerated portamento became glissando. Her bow attacks were emphatic, as were her snapped releases. Tempo changes were of the whiplash variety. Her fast playing was so fast that it lost tidiness and tonal warmth.

This was the Tchaikovsky as taffy pull, sagging in the middle a good deal of the time. It was a look-at-me performance not heard since the bad old days of Ivo Pogorelich. She jumped and walked about as she played, goaded the orchestra, and generally behaved like a rock star. As the third movement began, she flipped the page vehemently on her music stand, exaggerating even that. Somehow, Gražinytė-Tyla and the orchestra managed to calmly stay with her, though the look on the faces of some of the musicians appeared less than thrilled with what was transpiring.

The audience was nevertheless thrilled by the performance and was granted an encore. But not on violin, oh no. An upright piano was wheeled onstage, and Kopatchinskaja smashed her way through “Hommage á Tchaikovsky,” Kurtag’s tone cluster slam fest inspired by the opening bars of the piano concerto. This time, the audience was confused and muted in response. Maybe the whole performance was a joke, after all.

The best came last, with Gražinytė-Tyla’s fresh take on Debussy’s La mer. While most interpreters tend to emphasize the stark power and ominous danger of the ocean evoked in this music, Gražinytė-Tyla took a gentler, less severe approach. Hers was a songful reading. The first movement, “From dawn to noon on the sea,” was beautifully flowing and steady, phrases gently curved and warm, and seamlessly stitched. Though the movement reached its two climactic moments convincingly, the overall feel was almost pastoral.

In the second movement, “Play of the waves,” she seemed to take the “play” in the title more seriously than most; these waves weren’t crashing on rocks, but of friendlier, more sportive type. Unwilling to push the tempo, the conductor uncovered a lilting waltz near the end. The finale, “Dialogue of the wind and the sea,” became more violent and tumultuous as need be, but here, too, the conductor explored the not always apparent singing qualities in this music. The ending thrilled as usual, but was more than usually well earned by being led up to gradually.

In between the two musical landmarks came the world premiere (on its second day), Unsuk Chin’s SPIRA, A Concerto for Orchestra, one of the LA Phil’s numerous centennial year commissions. On initial acquaintance, the 20-minute work seemed like another exercise in old school European avant-gardism. One looked for help in the composer’s program note and found intimations of biological processes of “growth and metamorphosis,” of “unprecedented textures, sonorities, and forms” and “ur-cells,” and that the music is “constantly changing in terms of density, color, character, and pulse, shifting between chaos and order, activity and repose.” SPIRA is a tall order, in other words.

One did hear the ur-cells, twin vibraphones gently hovering at the beginning, and returning to the fore from time to time. One did hear something like chaos and order trading places amid the general splash painting of sound. One did notice a step-wise progression of chords, the changes accompanied by a kind of shuttering in the strings, turned this way and that, as if observed from different angles. But making clear sense of the teeming mass of the entirety proved difficult.

Gražinytė-Tyla led it confidently, though, and the orchestra, used to this type of thing, appeared to take it in stride.