Tito Time

Written by Kenneth LaFave Category: People Issue: December 2014
Group Mid-Level
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With a flourish of his baton, maestro Tito Muñoz transports Phoenix Symphony into the 21st Century.

Classical music audiences in Phoenix don’t leap to their feet. They slowly rise, or half-heartedly stand. But at concert’s end on September 19 in Symphony Hall, 2,000-plus people shot instantly from seated to vertical, erupting in shouts of “Bravo!” The object of this unanticipated enthusiasm: the 2014-2015 season-opening concert of the Phoenix Symphony, led for the first time by Tito Muñoz in his newly appointed role as the orchestra’s Virginia G. Piper Music Director.

“It’s Tito Time” announced the banners decking Symphony Hall, and audiences lined up in agreement. Both the inaugural September concert and its repeat performance the following day sold out. “I feel very welcome here,” Muñoz says over coffee a few days after the concerts, sporting an engaging smile. “The audiences are enthusiastic, and the patrons are excited about the orchestra. I think it helps that it’s so sunny all the time.”

Following the resignation of former maestro Michael Christie and the symphony’s subsequent two-year limbo, moods are a bit brighter in Valley classic music circles, too. New York City native Muñoz, 31, named artistic chief last spring, is poised to revitalize the state’s largest-budget fine arts organization with a unique combination of energy, sympathy and resourcefulness. The resourcefulness he has gleaned from years of study with some of the globe’s finest conductors; the sympathy flows naturally from his affable personality; and the energy – well, let’s go back to that opening night concert.

Muñoz led two demanding works of contrasting character: Stravinsky’s dramatic Firebird Suite and Carl Orff’s ritual-in-music, Carmina Burana. The Orff, with its renowned “O Fortuna!” movement made famous in movies such as Excalibur and The Doors, was a work of enormous scope, involving a huge mixed choir, boys chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra. Muñoz brought to its short, repetitive phrases a kind of meditative focus that built, over its hour-plus length, into an epic statement. Firebird was, like all of Stravinsky’s work, intimate music masquerading as grand statement. Muñoz accordingly charged the lyric lines and spiky dance rhythms of the piece with pungent urgency and color.

If the opening classics program was typical Muñoz, then Phoenix is in for the best symphonic music-making in its history. But conducting is only one – if the most visible – of a music director’s many hats. As Symphony president and CEO Jim Ward said of the position when the search was on, a music director must also “have the artistic vision to push the orchestra to new artistic heights, and the ability to commit to a community. Add to that the ability to partner with the staff and board, and these days, ideas for raising money.”

Committing to the community has been easy for the Phoenix Symphony’s 11th Music Director, who has settled into a home in the historical Encanto neighborhood of central Phoenix after girdling the globe as a conductor: Florida, California, Italy, Hawaii, the south of France.

France was the site of his only previous job as a music director. From 2010 until this September, Muñoz was artistic chief of L’Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy, and of its sister organization, the Opéra national de Lorraine. (In Europe, it is typical for the local symphony and opera to be linked.) The difference between a Continental European symphony orchestra and an American one is subtle, yet substantial, according to Muñoz: European musical training doesn’t focus on orchestral repertoire, so more rehearsals are necessary than in America or the UK, where training is all about preparing for an orchestra job.

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Landing a music director position with a major American orchestra is a notoriously difficult challenge, something Muñoz has been trying to do since he put the finishing touches on his conducting education at Colorado’s prestigious Aspen Music Festival and School from 2004-2006. Originally a violin student at New York’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art (the school in the movie Fame), Muñoz went on to play gigs for a mad variety of musical genres: opera pits, pop concerts, recording studios and Cuban-style charanga dance bands. Muñoz discovered his skills with the baton while still in his teens, and got instruction at The Juilliard School, but it was not until his work at Aspen with David Zinman, former music director of the Baltimore Symphony and legendary conducting pedagogue, that Muñoz found his real path.

“David Zinman was my main mentor. He is wonderfully pragmatic, a trait I really admire. For him, it’s not about ego, and it’s not about what the audience expects or what the board thinks it wants. It’s about what the orchestra needs and the music demands,” Muñoz says.

After studying with Zinman and two other greats – Leonard Slatkin of the National Symphony Orchestra and former New York Philharmonic music director Kurt Masur – Muñoz served as Assistant Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for three years, honing his skills and learning repertoire. He made the rounds of many an audition, which in the United States consists largely of guest-conducting the auditioning orchestra. He conducted two concerts for The Phoenix Symphony last season before being named Music Director.

Just as the symphony auditioned him, he auditioned Phoenix, and was impressed by its “rapid growth in a very short time.” The symphony’s board of directors also approved of the match, as did a poll of the symphony’s musicians. Ward is particularly enthusiastic that Muñoz is eager to “move the symphony orchestra into the 21st Century.” At first, that move will consist of small changes.

“One thing we’re talking about is wardrobe,” Muñoz says, with a shake of the head. “Why do symphony musicians wear tails? Nobody wears tails anymore.”

A big fan of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, Muñoz is interested in bringing the current version of the fabled musical to Phoenix – one that features a screening of the film, accompanied by live orchestra. Other than that, however, Muñoz has no immediate plans for a major repertoire commitment. No Mahler or Beethoven cycle is in the works. Rather, he is open to whatever his relationship with the orchestra brings: “My excitement over this job is in exploring things with this fine orchestra, [and] being a collaborative part of the music-making and the innovation that’s possible here.”

Muñoz Does Messiah
Tito Muñoz conducts Handel’s Messiah, a Phoenix Symphony holiday tradition, on the following dates at the following locations:

December 10: Scottsdale Center for the Arts
December 12: Ikeda Theatre at Mesa Arts Center
December 13: Camelback Bible Church
December 14: Pinnacle
Presbyterian Church

Visit phoenixsymphony.org for ticket prices and show times.