Mirga, Mahler and the beginning of a long goodbye


When you hear the opening of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony, you know that you’re going on a journey. That sudden, fierce shimmer in the air, the thunder of the cellos and basses: you’re pulled straight in.

In a great performance, you barely stop for breath – carried onwards in one mighty sweep, until suddenly (and before you’ve realised it) the choir is on its feet and the air is starting to ring with music whose message of remembrance and renewal becomes even more poignant when you know that it’ll be the very last thing you hear.

Yes, there’s definitely a reason why Mahler’s Second Symphony has become such a special work for the CBSO and its Chorus. Perhaps you’re old enough to remember when Sir Simon Rattle gave his final performance as Music Director in 1998 – or how this symphony christened the brand-new Symphony Hall in 1991. Now Mirga has decided to close her own chapter of the CBSO’s history with the Resurrection symphony – and you can be certain that she knows this orchestra, this audience and this city well enough to know exactly what she’s doing.

You can be sure, too, that it won’t be over till it’s over. Mirga’s never done anything by halves, and if (like Andris Nelsons before her) she’s leaving us wanting more, that doesn’t mean that she’ll be taking her foot off the pedal any time soon. So where to climb aboard? How about a pair of programmes with the violinist, phenomenon and all-round force of nature known as Patricia Kopatchinskaja – or if you’re a superfan (and most people who’ve experienced her in action would put themselves straight into that category) “PatKop”? She’s been to Brum before, in 2019, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto has never sounded quite the same since.

Friends reunited

“Incapable of giving a routine performance” was one critic’s verdict, and as for her encore…let’s say you simply had to be there. Eduardo Vassallo or Kate Suthers can tell you what went down; for now, let’s just say that it involved both those players and Mirga herself, plus the late John Cage – one of those sudden, gleeful, utterly unexpected moments of shared magic that make Mirga’s concerts feel like pulling a musical Christmas cracker. You never know what surprises are waiting to tumble out. Anyway, PatKop and Mirga are reunited in Shostakovich’s brooding monster of a First Violin Concerto, and a few weeks earlier in Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. It’s one of those brisk, bristling neoclassical logic-puzzles that Stravinsky did better than anyone else in the years between the wars: the story goes that, having been told that the explosive opening chord was physically impossible on the violin, Stravinsky went away and began each movement with exactly that chord.

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In other words, it could have been written for Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and with Mirga conducting it should be an absolute riot. Place your bets now on what she does for an encore, but we already know what Mirga is conducting after the interval. It’s Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, the one that begins with a bloodcurdling fanfare and ends with the mother of all vodka-fuelled Cossack shindigs. It’s also the symphony that she conducted in her very first concert in charge of the CBSO – that glorious night at the Royal Albert Hall, back in August 2016. “If ever there was a Prom to put London’s classical crowd in their place, to remind us that the city isn’t the be-all and end-all of concert-going, then this was it” wrote The Arts Desk. “See you in Birmingham!” yelled Mirga from the podium.

Six years of surprises

And they certainly did. Over the last six years – and even allowing for the wrecking-ball of Covid – Mirga’s concerts with the CBSO have repeatedly reset the agenda for orchestral music in the UK. Performances of Idomeneo and Pelléas et Mélisande; Ciurlionis’ The Sea, complete with live paintings by Norman Perryman; a commuter-startling appearance on the concourse of the brand-new Birmingham New Street station. And in 2018, quite simply the best Debussy anniversary celebration of any UK orchestra: a kaleidoscopic fortnight of concerts that embraced the CBSO’s whole extended family of youth ensembles, choruses and partner organisations across the city.

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It’s melancholy to reflect upon what might have been – the Varèse festival and the concert performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino that were scuppered by the pandemic; the much-postponed and finally abandoned Britten’s War Requiem at the 2021 Salzburg Festival. (In a Covid-free parallel universe that Salzburg performance alone would surely have generated Europe- wide supply-chain issues for critical superlatives). Meanwhile, Mirga is carrying right on doing what she does best – devising programmes that reflect both her own passions and Birmingham’s musical heritage, and conducting them with that unmistakable combination of profound insight and life-affirming brio. Who can forget the extraordinary weekend in 2018 when she brought her friend Gidon Kremer to Birmingham for a deep dive into the imagination of Mieczysław Weinberg – a project that culminated in the UK premiere of Weinberg’s staggering 21st Symphony, and ultimately (for only the second time ever) the CBSO winning Recording of the Year at the Gramophone Awards? “A watershed moment for Weinberg’s reputation” wrote the critic David Fanning.

Weinberg and beyond

That journey continues in March, as Mirga conducts two more Weinberg symphonies –  a return to the lyrical Third Symphony of 1949, which she conducted (to critical acclaim) at the 2019 Proms, and a first encounter with the altogether stormier Fourth, composed in 1957 as Weinberg nursed the psychic wounds of the state- sponsored anti-Semitism that had seen him briefly imprisoned before the death of Stalin in 1953. Shostakovich makes a natural partner for Weinberg’s powerful, multilayered music, and Mirga is joined by another old friend, cellist Sheku Kanneh- Mason, in the rarely-played Second Cello Concerto. “Old” is a relative term, of course –  Sheku, incredibly enough, is still only 23. But he’s travelled a long way since his debut recording with Mirga and the CBSO became a worldwide smash (it even topped the US pop charts) in 2018. Like her, he’s an artist on a journey: it’ll be fascinating to hear what he has to say in this mightiest of 20th century cello concertos.

And it’s always fascinating to hear the Venezuelan pianist and composer Gabriela Montero. Famed for her brilliant, freewheeling improvisations, she’s another artist who sees music as a means of connecting people – and maybe even nudging the world, ever so slightly, in a better direction. “Artists have such power in their hands” she says. “We can appeal to people to help create change, to help create empathy”. She’s worked with Mirga before (though not in Birmingham) and by all accounts their chemistry is something else. The chance to hear the two of them in Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto – with all its exuberance, melody and sheer, unbuttoned emotional generosity – should be very special indeed.

Mirga’s pairing it with a different symphony on each occasion, and you can take your pick. Brahms’s lovely third is the Cinderella of his four symphonies and the only one that ends softly, in the deep glow of a Romantic sunset. It’s very Mirga. Or you can hear her attempt something entirely new to her (in Birmingham, at least): Bruckner’s majestic Sixth Symphony of 1881. If you needed further proof that this is a conductor who’s always looking to the horizon, undaunted by any artistic challenge – well, it’s on 11 May.

Beginnings and endings

But all good things come to an end – even when, like Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, you’ve packed more adventure, innovation and creative energy into six (eventful) years in Birmingham than some maestros manage in two decades. If you can beg, borrow or buy a ticket for Mahler’s Second Symphony on 25 June, you’ll witness a page being turned.

You’ll also experience a new beginning, with the world premiere of Five Polish Folksongs, the latest of the CBSO’s Centenary Commissions. They’re by Roxanna Panufnik, whose father, the great Anglo-Polish composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik, was the CBSO’s Chief Conductor in the late 1950s, and whose choral epic Faithful Journey – A Mass for Poland was the first piece that Mirga premiered on her return from maternity leave in November 2018. “There is hope, and even humour in Panufnik’s Mass”, wrote one (obviously surprised) critic at the time, and it was one of those evenings where everything seemed to align: a concert that was bigger than the sum of its parts.

Mirga’s always been good at that – seeing music as part of a bigger picture; gathering the threads of art and life, and weaving them into a story that says something vital to everyone who hears it. She makes it look so natural, too. Her last concert as Music Director of the CBSO embraces the CBSO’s own history and modern achievements, celebrates enduring friendships and cherished memories, and brings them all together, in the presence of Birmingham’s whole musical community, to say something genuinely new. Classic Mirga: a chapter ends, but she leaves us in no possible doubt that the story is very far from over.

Richard Bratby