My Way: Mirga rewrites the rules of conducting

My Way: Mirga rewrites the rules of conducting


norman lebrecht

January 28, 2022

The short and intermittent career of the Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is a striking lesson in the radical changes that have befallen the conducting profession in the past decade.

Mirga, now 35, was a junior assistant conductor at Heidelberg when she won the Salzburg Nestlé Competition in 2012.

The victory won her a job at the Salzburg Landestheater and a fellowship in Gustavo Dudamel’s baton pack at the LA Phil. Musicians there told me she was one to look out for and she moved quickly up the ranks to associate conductor.

In 2016, not quite 30, she became music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, former rostrum of Simon Rattle and Andris Nelsons. Mirga was well on her way. A DG recording contract followed along with interest frrom London orchestras and the New York Philharmonic.

But Mirga was having none of the old career rules. She had a baby, then another, with a partner she declined to name – a musician in the Heidelberg orchestra. After the second baby she gave up the Birmingham job, saying she did not want to be a music director any more. This week she let it be known that there is a third baby on the way, clearing her working diary for 2022. She will not revisit Birmingham for a farewell performance in June (although she is still expected to conduct in March).

That, to anyone who knows how conducting works, is… different.

No maestro has ever put his career on hold to look after a growing family. None, apart from Carlos Kleiber, has shunned the music director role. Never has a prominent classical musician guarded this much privacy about personal priorities. No musician of talent has defied the hierarchy, the public and the media in this way.

All this iconoclasm is commendable. Mirga is stubbornly blazing the way for women to have a full life in the podium. It won’t be easy when she comes back but what she has shown so far is both courage and conviction. The next page in her story will be fascinating.

See you around, Mirga.


  • Ofri Abramov says:

    Hear hear!

  • Not Impressed with Mirga says:

    Can’t help but feel sorry for the CBSO & their audience to be treated this way is rather shabby frankly imo

    • RW2013 says:

      Rules of conducting?!
      Third child as MD sounds more like carelessness to me.

    • Wally Francis says:

      Really – just listen to her recordings of Sospiri and a truly wonderful (best in the catalogue) Tallis Fantasia

      The air you pompous views

      • Stan says:

        The commenter is simply expressing a point of view and is not being rude or personal.

        I am disappointed that you have been personal unnecessarily, especially as you have an official role with the CBSO Development Trust. Standards are slipping.

        As can be seen, many agree with the comment, including CBSO supporters.

      • Robin Smith says:

        “The air you pompous views”. What does this mean ?
        Which message are you responding to ?

  • J Rance says:

    I can’t stand watching her conduct…she bounces around like an over-wound automaton.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      Close your eyes and listen instead. If what you’re hearing is not pleasant, then you have grounds to not like her as a conductor.

      • Kenneth says:

        I disagree, I believe that aesthetic plays an enormous role. Take Orozco-Estrada; brilliant conductor, but makes clown faces all the time…

      • barry guerrero says:

        That’s fine with a recording. When you’re at a concert, it’s a bit difficult to not be distracted by a physically demonstrative conductor.

        • Jack says:

          I’ve experienced that from time to time in my seventy years of concert going and I have found closing eyes or watching the orchestra to be an effective strategy. It can be done.

        • Kay Warbrick says:

          Her passion , precision and flair enhance the music for me. Lot of men moaning about the beautiful physicality of her conducting it seems to me.

        • Frank Flambeau says:

          I disagree. My favorite conductor used to leap into the air and people loved it. Long live Lenny.

    • Wally francis says:

      You don’t watch conductors you just need to listen to them!

    • Kay Warbrick says:

      I adore the way she conducts

  • Gustavo says:

    Brexit, Boris and the pandemic have presumably reinforced her professional, residential and reproductive decisions.

  • dalet says:

    1. So she booked the farewell concert, so it’s on her calendar, her biological planning is also on her calendar, couldn’t she have managed things on her calendar with a little bit more foresight? Like NOT booking a concert that may interfere with other events on her calendar? She had 9 months to cancel!

    2. No previous conductor took time off to raise a family because they were all MEN who relied on their wives to do all the heavy lifting. Which begs the question, is Mirga’s un-named partner also taking time off or is he pursuing HIS career full time while she stays at home, in which case, there is no social or gender progress at all.

    3. Other than that, I’m all for Mirga’s career choises. IF it is equitably shared with the father of her children, and responsibly managed in terms of booking.

    • Kyle says:

      Your points 2. and 3. require a larger cohort. It isn’t “social or gender progress” if the only “right way” to raise a family is to reject traditional roles. That would be equally as bad as only allowing the traditional roles (except worse since if ignores biological truths about parental roles). The point being, Mirga is under no obligation to satisfy anyone else’s ideas about family dynamics.

      I agree with your point 1.

    • V. Lind says:

      Her domestic arrangements with her partner are nobody’s business but theirs.

      And anyone with the most fundamental knowledge of these things know that in reproduction, the best-laid plans can be overturned in an instant…

      What you seem to be saying is that women are unfit for the podium if they keep having to take time off for maternity. I would imagine human rights and anti-discrimination laws precent potential employers of a Music Director from asking a woman candidate what her reproductive plans are.

      It’s a tough one. Mirga has let down the Orchestra that has let her make her name — her promise was clearly recognised, but running an orchestra is what has given her the power in the field that she now enjoys. In a way, aside from this somewhat unfortunate timing, she has managed her career very sensibly — she now carries enough reputation (rightly or wrongly) to freelance from here on out.

      By getting on with her family while young, she has managed to have a few years at the helm of a major orchestra, and get noticed for it. But she has disappointed her employers, and the audience that considers her their own.

      It’s tricky. Orchestra managements might be wary in future of engaging a young woman as MD. But if you are suggesting that women of reproductive years may be excluded from such roles, you are buying yourself a world of trouble.

    • Joana says:

      I’m so glad you agree with her choices, I’m sure she’s relieved. You should probably also confirm with her OBGYN if she did in fact succeed in her biological planning. In other words, get out of her womb!

  • David says:

    I very much doubt that the lady would have become prominent without the present gender phobia. Even Furtwaengler’s beat was more a proper beat than her gesticulating…Carlos Kleiber had a full job in Stuttgart before working freelance only and this was not due to his family..

    • Achim Mentzel says:

      The greatest crime is to even remotely think of drawing a comparison between these two masters and this ridiculous bouncer.

  • Stuart L. says:

    ‘She will not revisit Birmingham even for a farewell performance.’

    As far as I am aware she will be in Birmingham in Spring 2022 conducting various performances including the one I have booked to attend on 11 May. The press release states that she will be unavailable from June.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Defying the hierarchy by having babies? Plenty of conductors did that. Furtwangler had 13 illegitimate children, apparently.

    • Tamino says:

      Can’t compare that. Furtwängler only took time off before and after a concert, to make new babies. Never during!

  • IC225 says:

    “She will not revisit Birmingham…” – she has cancelled five performances in June. Between now and then she is still scheduled to conduct 28 performances with the CBSO, in Birmingham and on tour in Europe and the UK.

  • Monsoon says:

    I suspect there are many other conductors who have shunned 52-week careers in favor of spending more time with their families or pursuing other interests, but Mirga understandably gets more attention because she has the audacity to get pregnant despite her conducting obligations (there’s already one poster in this thread who thinks her family planning should be managed around her conducting schedule).

    IIRC, Daniel Harding was going to take a few years off of conducting to be a commercial airline pilot. John Eliot Gardiner has only conducted a handful of concerts a year for the last two decades because he’s more interested in farming. At the height of his career, Michael Tilson Thomas held only one music director post with his only major activity outside of San Francisco being the New World Symphony in Miami.

    • IC225 says:

      And no-one mention the sainted Carlos Kleiber, who had a repertoire of roughly 12 pieces and boasted that he only conducted when he was short of money.

  • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

    “Never has a prominent classical musician guarded this much privacy about personal priorities.”
    Ok, then, name Hilary Hahn’s husband. %)

  • Tim Walton says:

    Her loss. Good riddance. She never was and never will be, up to the same standard as her predecessors in Birmingham – Rattle, Oramo or Nelsons.

  • Achim Mentzel says:

    The more babies she has, the less we have to see her in concerts. I am in favor of at least a fourth and fifth.

    Hopefully this blog owner‘s perpetually horny attention to her will end at some point, so we don‘t have to be informed about her every fart here.

  • Giora says:

    Brava!!! She is a great musician and a great human being!! I wish her all the best for her life, family and career.

  • Ionut says:

    Good for her! I applaud her for doing it her way. The puropse of life is being happy. If family life is what makes her happier than music. By all means she should enjoy her time with the family. A job is a job, a family is a family!

  • Save the MET says:

    You won’t want to hear this, but Mirga is a case and point why young women of child bearing years will not be considered seriously for major positions in the conducting world. The best orchestras are shaped by the conductor and their sound over time becomes uniquely their own. If female Music Directors are not around to shape the orchestra and their are constantly led by a string of guests conductors during their pregnancies and or after on maternity leave, the orchestra does not advance. Orchestras and orchestra boards want consistency. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for up and coming female conductors.

  • CBSOMusician says:

    What a shitshow it is.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    If somebody is ‘in demand’, they can pretty much get away with whatever they want, until they’re no longer in demand. It’s really that simple.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      Good point. But how long will the interest last if there are other photogenic breakdancers around?

      • IC225 says:

        “Tell us you’ve never listened to a performance by MGT without telling us you’ve never listened to a performance by MGT”

  • Polly says:

    Well said! We can hope that this new approach will mean that not only women taking time to be carers as well as great conductors, but men’s need to have a family life is legitimised as well.

  • Peter George says:

    Commendable? If only. Paved the way for women? Doubtful. Perhaps she has strewn their way with insurmountable rocks. Isn’t there something insulting about treating one’s public with disdain?

  • Musician says:

    She’s the real deal, unlike Dausgaard and other pretenders.

  • John Hamiton says:

    Seattle Symphony!!!!

  • just saying says:

    Hmmm. She was once our “biggest” female conductor presence…but I can’t help but feel like other female conductors will be eclipsing her quite soon, especially here in the U.S, with Malkki and Stutzmann well-positioned to make quite the names for themselves.

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    We need to rethink the role of the conductor.

    My guess is that most orchestras do not need one; audiences do and so do record companies for marketing purposes. Look at the Far Cry Orchestra or my favorite model, the St. Paul. Perhaps guest conductors for certain concerts only (i.e. a Sibelius cycle) and to help in planning a year’s concerts. Otherwise, none. This would also give conductors more freedom.

    Wouldn’t it be nice for a major city to do this? It would also save bucks.

  • Tamino says:

    People read too much into this. She likes to have children, and she is in a position career wise where she can afford to be picky, because she is in demand. Part of getting to that position is her hard work and talent, another part is luck. None of what she does can be used as a role model for other female artists unless they already are at the peak of the ivory tower themselves.

    Good for her that she cares about family and children. Good for her that while already being very wealthy, she is not driven to more money and power as an ultimate goal like so many men are.

  • music lover says:

    It´s always about the return engangements…..Of the few high profile engagements she had(she canceled quite some before pregnancies),how many brought return engagements,in Europe and the US?The two my family members play(in one case,played)in,clearly have no intention to do so….

  • Patrick says:

    Oops. You omitted a couple of words from one sentence. It should read:

    “ Mirga is stubbornly blazing the way for extraordinarily gifted women to have a full life in the podium.”

    Like any career in the conducting field, hers is a path for few (and even fewer).

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    It’s courageous, but she’s not the first woman to risk having babies while pursuing a career in classical music. I have no opinion about her or her musical capacities but I’m sure she’s aware of the professional climate in which she’s moving and how fickle the media can be in promoting the next Charlene Kleiber or Wilhemina Furtwängler in the absence of the soon-to-be yesterday’s Bette Colin Davis.

  • Ian Cole says:

    As a season ticket holder at CBSO for many years the trend is depressing – Rattle 18 years, Oramo 10 years, Nelsons 7 years, Grazinyte-Tyla 6 years (but often missing) – no longer enough time to develop a proper rapport with players and audience. All very disappointing.

    • Appleby says:

      It’s a comparable tenure to that of Weldon, Rignold and Schwarz and appreciably longer than Matthews, Panufnik and Boult (on either occasion). Rattle’s 18 years were an outlier in Birmingham terms; apart from him, only Oramo, Fremaux and Heward stayed for as long as a decade. Weldon had a famously powerful rapport with the Birmingham public (crowds gathered in Victoria Square to see him off after his final concert) but he was fired after fewer than seven years, nonetheless.

      There’s no trend to read into it, other than that the world is moving faster, and that modern comms mean that reputations are made more quickly now than they once were. Boult, Heward, Schwarz and Nelsons all left Birmingham prematurely because they were headhunted by organisations with deeper pockets and (deservedly or not) higher profiles: that’s not going to change unless the UK funding picture (and the Londoncentric mentality of the UK arts media) changes.

  • Helen says:

    I am quite disturbed by the tone of most of the posters here. How do we know if this child was planned or not? And, if Mirga was trying to conceive a third child, how do we know how long she had been trying to do so? Quite frankly, one simply cannot precisely plan when to get pregnant, it should be regarded as a happy event.

    I am equally disturbed by the notion that maternity leave gets in the way of jobs. It is most disappointing to read that so many have written and liked such opinions.

    • Tamino says:

      While I agree with you mostly, the question of maternity leave “getting in the way of the job” is a real one for certain especially demanding leadership professions.
      And orchestra conducting is one of them.
      Everybody is different. But I don’t think a woman necessarily should be expected to get down in the pit and conduct a Tristan one week after giving birth.

      Yes, evolution is unfair.
      A man’s indispensable physical contribution to child creation is measured in minutes. A woman’s in months or even years. That’s the way it is.

  • A Dolfadam says:

    Meanwhile, how many men were unable to establish themselves while she gobble up those positions, only to abandon her career for being a mother? This is what is wrong. Women can in some cases, excel faster, with more facility because they mature earlier in some ways, keeping men out, and then nature calls them to a higher purpose.

    • BRUCEB says:

      It might be interesting (not for you, since you already know what you think) to take a look at all the Slipped Disc articles of the past, say, two years that announce conductors getting hired, and see how many are about men vs. how many are about women.

  • Piston1 says:

    This has absolutely nothing to do with gender, or with the utterly laudable act of having children…..this is just another story about the latest over-hyped, over-paid, over-rated, over-engaged Nordic/Baltic conductor, taking the English-speaking world by storm, until everyone realizes that they’re not the next Esa-Pekka Salonen, and then they start cancelling; and eventually they settle into a quiet, respectable, European career.