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.
There must be a good reason for posting a review the link to which was posted here less than two months earlier.
The link was good only for a couple of days. Before and after that, it remained behind a subscription paywall, where many people couldn’t read it. After two months, the rights of the review revert to me. Thus the post.
Thanks for confirming that my guess was correct: this is a good reason indeed!
Tim, please refer to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto by what it is, a great masterpiece, not an “old warhorse.” Many thanks for the courage of seeing the empress with no clothes.
Of course it’s a masterpiece. The soloist considered it a warhorse.
How do you know that? Did she tell you? Judging by what i have heard from her (both live and recorded) so far, she approaches almost everything she plays approximately that same way – as something that needs to be reinvented. And then she “reinvents” it according to her musical instincts and taste. Some of it works, much of it doesn’t. That is my personal opinion, but i do know a few fine musicians who love most or all of it as well as a few who hate it.
The two terms – masterpiece and warhorse – are not mutually exclusive, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is a good example. It is both.
Sure. Some folks seem to think “warhorse” is an insulting term, though. I don’t know what to call what the violinist did. “Re-inventing” is ok, but it also seemed to be making a little fun of the piece. The encore certainly went in that direction, and following how she played the concerto … well, I just don’t know. Her performance of the Violin Concerto sounded almost like a “send up” of a warhorse that has been overplayed.
According to several sources i looked at, warhorse simply means something that has been and/or being performed a lot – maybe too much. In other words, it says nothing negative about the piece itself but is somewhat negative about the possibly excessive amount of its exposure. Of course her encore was a send-up of a piece that is the very definition of a warhorse – but it wasn’t really hers; it was by Kurtag, and she made that very clear to the audience.
Your opinion of her Concerto performance is certainly valid and many musicians share it, but all i am saying is that others whose opinions i respect too have a very different impression, in some cases almost opposite. The meticulousness with which she was rehearsing the piece and her insistence on all details of her interpretation of it showed that she values it highly and takes it seriously. Unfortunately, for me personally much of it was not convincing anyway: all i heard was a considerable talent that was largely wasted by a highly questionable taste.
Oh, sure. I’ve heard from several musicians that I respect who were 100% behind her performance. That’s OK. I believe her thinking is all wrong, though.
And that would mean that so was the thinking of those several musicians. Do you not respect them anymore? Just curious…
One of musicians i know said: “It was a breath of fresh air”. Others wanted to shut all windows closed and lock the door.
I still respect the musicians who said they enjoyed the violinist. Several critics did too. C’est la vie.
Thank you for satisfying my curiosity. For me it works like this: if and when i believe that a person’s opinion about a musical matter or two is clearly “wrong”, my respect for that person’s future musical opinions goes down a notch; but i think i usually succeed in not letting it affect my respect for that person as a human being.
“she approaches almost everything she plays approximately that same way – as something that needs to be reinvented.” But — let me guess — she probably plays only overly programmed works. Because playing wonderful un-programmed works (of which there are legion) takes time, effort, and courage. Why not just cease programming/’reinventing’ these over-played masterpieces and instead play the actual score of masterpieces moldering in orchestral libraries?
Your guess is incorrect. She plays quite a bit of everything, including lots of “modern” music that cannot possibly be called “overly programmed”.
For those who are curious about this entire “controversy”: that program was recorded live and is being broadcast on KUSC this Sunday June 16 at 7 pm.