By Inge Kjemtrup
With concerts every night from mid-July to early September featuring an amazing line-up of performers, orchestras, and ensembles, the BBC Proms has good reason to call itself “the world’s greatest classical music festival.” Feel free to raise your eyebrows at this uncharacteristic British boasting, but there’s no denying that BBC Proms is one of the biggest summer festivals around, with 90+ concerts and related events, most of them taking place at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
It is also one of the oldest: 122 years old this summer. For the last 90 of those years, it’s been run by the BBC, Britain’s national broadcaster. The public service remit means the BBC broadcasts all Proms concerts and events on BBC Radio 3 and online.
Selected Proms are televised, including the sold-out concert that took place on August 21 with violinist Leila Josefowicz playing Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. Truth be told, the TV cameras and the audience were largely there to check out the hot-shot young conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. “I’m just here to see Mirga!” the elderly gentleman sitting next to me enthused.
My concert companion, and most English speakers, may struggle to pronounce Grazinyte-Tyla’s surname—your correspondent has some sympathy for this issue—but Mirga madness is in high gear, and not just for the Proms.
Last year, the 31-year-old Lithuanian was appointed music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra with fine form in conductor-spotting. The CBSO also signed up Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo, and Andris Nelson at early stages of their careers. North American concertgoers may have seen Grazinyte-Tyla at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she was a Dudamel fellow. (She’ll be back there next season, and will also make debuts with the Philadelphia Orchestra and with the Met Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.)
Women conductors are still rarity, even at the Proms, which had to cope with some hostile responses when Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the revered Last Night of the Proms a few years ago. Certain powerful male musicians questioned publicly whether a woman was even capable of establishing her authority over an orchestra.
Not an issue here. Grazinyte-Tyla has a cheerful and calm manner but she commanded the orchestra’s attention as as she stepped up to the podium. She was wearing a sleeveless dress that highlighted her long arms, which she used to great effect to exhort and dance the CBSO through zippy readings of the two Beethoven works (the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 and the Fifth Symphony). She shunned the baton, except in a new and rather bizarre work by British composer Gerald Barry, entitled Canada.
Stravinsky’s love of jagged, punctuated rhythms is on display in his Violin Concerto. Alas, the notoriously boomy acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall are always challenging and while the spiky Stravinsky spirit emerged, the finer precision that would have made it truly vibrant was not there.
This is not to take away anything from Leila Josefowicz’ account of the concerto, which was forward-moving and exhilarating. Especially memorable were the reflective mood Josefowicz brought to the brooding third movement, Aria II, and the display of technical prowess in the scampering final movement. That virtuoso side emerged again in her encore, an excerpt from Esa-Pekka Salonen’s crunchy work for solo violin, Lachen verlent (“Laughing unlearnt”).
As the concluding chord of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the final work on the program, died away, I turned to the guy next to me, who had a smile on his face. He’s still a Mirga fan, and now he’s another satisfied Proms customer.