City of Birmingham Symphony

City of Birmingham Symphony

How a woman in charge can mesmerise an audience

Birmingham Symphony: accomplished, admired & delightful

It is quite amazing to see a woman conducting a full orchestra. And when that orchestra is the City of Birmingham Symphony and the woman is an angelic looking creature -- conducting with beautiful bare arms outstretched, long hair swinging down her back as she springs around on the podium -- clad in a well cut black one-piece jump suit rather than the usual tails and serge coat -- it makes any listener sit up. Her style is expressive – one moment as staccato as a mechanical doll, the next she seems to float over her orchestra like a supernatural nymph. All preconceptions about what women do – and don’t do -- melt away and there is only the music and presided over by a feminine and forceful skill.


A woman conductor shouldn’t be such a shock. After all female musicians have long been on the stages of Europe – think of Clara Schuman who toured with her husband’s works. After his death she kept herself and eight children going with the proceeds. Even the controversial cello was soon accepted as suitable for a lady player. It’s being in charge that really shakes the foundations. A conductor is usually an older man, steeped in the traditions of concert etiquette.

On Thursday night the audience of the Cambridge Corn Exchange, packed to the gunnels and on top appreciative form, relished the appearance of 30 year old Mirga Grazinytė-Tyla as Conductor. It is seven years since the celebrated City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra visited Cambridge and a lot has changed in that short time. Classical music is more relaxed in presentation. The gloomy Corn Exchange, still sadly the only venue in Cambridge for visiting orchestras, has brightened up. And even if the audience is still on uncomfortable chairs in a draughty hall (coats on throughout  the concert in this wintry weather) the all important lighting now skilfully reflects the musical mood – and the bar at the interval is a bit less like a Glaswegian pub before closing time. 

However when The CBSO’s mesmeric conductor got going with a spirited Haydn piece, all was light and delight. In the next piece – a little known Scottish fantasy by Bruch, centre stage slipped to virtuoso violinist Ning Feng. The man is a legend in his native China and is fast becoming a star in Europe. At the brief pre-concert talk, his Conductor was in awe of his astonishing talent. 'I asked him what he knew,' she explained, 'and the list went on and on. He can play them all without the music.' 

Sure enough he performed the Bruch entirely from memory and with dazzling skill.

The concert’s first half managed to feature a lovely ensemble between some orchestra members and local children. In a world premiered piece In Cambridge Town by Richard Barnard, Mirga encouraged her young players through a complex piece based on three local folk songs. Of course a man could have done it – but not in the same gentle way. 

The second half was the musical highlight of the night. 

Bella Bartok fled to American when the Nazis invaded Europe. Already an acclaimed composer he met a frosty reception in New York where the library refused to print out his work – too expensive – and his health gave out. For three years his wrote nothing until a fellow exile persuaded him into creativity again. From his deathbed be gave the world his Concerto for Orchestra, a sublimely  beautiful work with themes of the threat of death succeeded by a final passage - homage to the glorious comfort of the creative musical life. 

Dimmed now in a hushed auditorium, this last testimony of a great artist, ‘a swansong of beauty’ as Mirga Grazinytė-Tyla put it -- was mysterious as it was moving.

Hushed by the drama of these last worlds, the whole Corn Exchange then broke out into a rapturous appreciation for the women who had led them through this long concert.

‘Can we take you to Gateshead? (their next stop)  she called over the top of an applause that seemed to go on and on. Not anything a male conductor has ever done but it fitted the exuberant style of a woman we’re bound to hear more of.

Kettle's Yard -

Kettle's Yard -

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Royal Philharmonic Dazzling