When The Phoenix Symphony’s guest conductors take the podium this season, they’re not just stepping in to lead the orchestra and please the ears of the audiences – they’re also auditioning for a position. Current Music Director Michael Christie leaves the Symphony next spring, and orchestra administrators find new artistic leadership through a series of traditional interviews as well as by giving each candidate a chance with the baton and then seeking feedback from the musicians. And the bonus for audiences? Nine months to experience a wide range of conducting styles, enjoy watching the musicians react under changing leadership, and listen for differences in the orchestra’s sound from week to week.
The First guest conductor to make her mark was Sarah Hicks, who opened the Symphony’s Classics series in the third week of September with a strong program of Bernstein, Beethoven, and Brahms. Typically, the orchestra’s management settles on a guest soloist and a specific concerto, then works with the guest conductor to determine additional repertoire.
Explain Hicks, “I have a deep affinity for the works of one of my musical idols, Leonard Bernstein, and his powerful and popular Symphonic Dances from West Side Story seemed to be the perfect fit. I rounded out the program with his charming and joyful Overture to Candide, and then, taking into account the dance elements of West Side Story, added Hungarian dances by Johannes Brahms.” Any toe-tapping in the audience was a natural result of those choices, Hicks says. “I have a dance background that deeply informs my music-making, so I looked forward to bringing my energy and strong sense of rhythm to the program.”
Sarah Hicks’s positions include staff conductor of the Curtis Institute of Music and Principal Conductor for Pops and Presentations for the Minnesota Orchestra. That’s where she created the intriguing Microcommission Project, the first of its kind, in which hundreds of people made micro-donations to fund a major new work. A few of her cooler gigs have included conducting the final leg of Sting’s Symphonicities Tour plus numerous performances with Ben Folds.
Born in Tokyo and raised in Honolulu, Hicks was a serious pianist until hand injuries turned her toward conducting at 17. She earned her composition degree at Harvard and studied conducting at Curtis with Otto-Werner Mueller, a teacher she remembers with appreciation. “He…instilled in me a deep respect of intent of the composer and the importance of careful study of a musical score,’ she says. “I often feel like the vessel through which music needs to flow so that it goes to the orchestra and the audiences – it’s an awesome responsibility, but such a powerful way to bring people together.”
Tito Muñoz steps in front of The Phoenix Symphony for the first time October 18-22 when he’ll conduct a program of music by Samuel Barber, Maurice Ravel (featuring pianist Benjamin Hochman), and Dmitri Shostakovich – an interesting array of works for the 20-year-old conductor. “Barber was a student at the Curtis Institute, (and) the Overture to The School for Scandal was his first piece for orchestra – it’s a young piece, but obviously an incredible talent,” Muñoz explains. “The Ravel piano concerto evokes a lot of jazz; the year before he started the piece he met Gershwin, (who) took him to some jazz clubs in Harlem, and he also went to New Orleans…there’s just so much color and so much vibrancy.”
On the other hand, Muñoz describes the massive Symphony Number 10 by Shostakovich as “intense and emotional.” He continues, “Shostakovich was repressed by Joseph Stalin, and this piece premiered after Stalin died, so all of a sudden Shostakovich had the opportunity to say what was on his mind, especially in the ferocious second movement…intended to be a portrait (of the dictator).” He says emphatically, “It’s a very frightening, very brutal movement.”
Muñoz’s engagement in Phoenix follows concerts with the Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy – the Symphony and Opera Orchestra of nancy, of which he is director. Previously, he served as Assistant Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Järvi, and was appointed Assistant Conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra by Franz Welser-Möst. “It’s the top of the top,” he says. “It was an honor to work with those musicians.” Muñoz has been lucky in his mentors, too, he explains. “As far as really forming me and being the person I emulated and took a lot from, David Zinman would be the one.”
While Muñoz’s extensive experience conducting opera and the elite Joffrey Ballet gives him insight beyond the bounds of strictly orchestral performances, he has a clear understanding of his role onstage. “With a purely symphonic concert, the ideal is that the orchestra needs me the least amount…you want to be able to give the musicians and opportunity to really play like chamber music.”
Look for Russian conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn starting November 8 – he brings years of experience onstage as a professional pianist; in fact, you may recognize him from a past appearance as guest soloist with The Phoenix Symphony. Along with his recital, concert, chamber, and conducting appearances around the world, he’s Principal Guest Conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra as well as Conductor Laureate of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
A winner of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, Solzhenitsyn serves on the piano faculty of the Curtis Institute, where he met violist Nokothula Ngwenyama as a student – they’ll reunite for their Phoenix program. As Solzhenitsyn explains the repertoire, “The Symphony asked me to build a program around the Barók Viola Concert, since Thula had already been engaged to play it.” He adds, “I decided to begin with the exquisite Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage of Mendelssohn, an infrequently heard masterwork of early German Romanticism that draws its inspiration from Goethe and Beethoven, and points the way to Wagner…a challenge for any orchestra – and indeed any conductor – but, when done right, it can result in a glorious experience.”
Solzhenitsyn continues, “then comes the Barók – his very last work, and as important a viola concert as any in the repertoire.” He concludes, “For the second half, I chose the immortal Petrushka ballet of Stravinsky. This is an orchestral showpiece of blinding brilliance…one of Stravinsky’s greatest achievements…music that remains ever fresh and irresistible.” Solzhenitsyn enjoyed instruction from two important influences, he says. “My two great conducting mentors were Otto-Werner Mueller – my professor at Curtis – and (cellist and conductor) Mstislav Rostropovich.” He elaborates, “Rostropovich really taught me how to think about music, how to project character and gesture in conducting; Mueller added his meticulous analytical sense and exacting technical training.” Solzhenitsyn adds, “The technical paradox of Mueller’s method might be distilled in two seemingly contradictory admonitions that ring in my ears to this day: ‘Don’t just beat time!’ but also: ‘One can never be too clear!’”
“I’m kind of living my life’s dream,” says Thomas Wilkins. Born and raised in Virginia, Wilkins started studying cello and piano but fell in love with conducting in the third grade when he attended his first concert. “I just remember that the first sound they made was The Star-Spangled Banner…I’d never heard the voice of this thing called the orchestra, and from that moment I was captivated,” he laughs.
“For a young black boy in a housing project born to a single mother on welfare, to have your life’s calling placed in your lap when you’re 8 years old is unbelievable. And it really says more about the power of classical music than it does about me,” he explains.
A graduate of the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory, Wilkins is Music Director of the Omaha Symphony as well as Principal Guest Conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestras.
When he leads The Phoenix Symphony at the end of January, Wilkins opens the concert with the Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, a sensual work. “This Danzón is about the relationship between a man and a woman dancer…and in the music there’s a dialogue that happens between the principal oboe and the principal clarinet, as if it’s the man and the woman having a conversation. And it’s full of fire and passion by the time you get to the end of it.”
The program continues with guest soloist Miriam Fried performing music by Johannes Brahms, and ends with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nubmer 5. Says Wilkins, “Beautiful things happen when you place a lot of the responsibility back into the laps of the orchestra because they end up working like a giant string quartet, and they appreciate that freedom…it’s just a shared, always joyful music-making experience.”
“I said to my young daughters, ‘For me the happiest time in my life, where I feel the safest, is when I’m on the podium conducting.’ Of course, I got an elbow in the ribs from my wife when I said that…” Wilkins chuckles. “But this music is so much greater than we are, and the fact that we get to participate in it is really a gift, and not a right.”