After a 2 1/2-year search, the Phoenix Symphony has named a new music director to define the artistic identity and serve as the public face of the state’s largest performing-arts company.
Tito Muñoz, who currently serves as music director of the Opéra National de Lorraine and Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy in France, will take the baton at Phoenix’s Symphony Hall for seven classics concerts in the 2014-15 season. A native of Queens, N.Y., he is 30 years old — the same age of his predecessor, Michael Christie, when Christie came to the Valley in 2004.
“He’s young, but he’s very mature in his character,” said Viviana Cumplido Wilson, principal flute and one of five symphony musicians who served on the search committee.
Wilson said Muñoz found a strong chemistry with the orchestra in two visits as guest conductor, and she added that his artistic credentials were part of his appeal.
“We really wanted someone who was going to live here and become part of our community, as opposed to being an absentee landlord,” she said.
“A music director has to set a high artistic standard, but it was also about managerial-type things: how comfortable they are being the public face of the organization and dealing with donors.”
The son of South American immigrants — his mother is from Ecuador, his father from Colombia — Muñoz did not come from a musicalfamily.
“If I didn’t do music, I probably would have done computer science or something like that,” he said.
“I was a product of public-school education, and I came to music in middle school. The orchestra teacher was going around recruiting for his strings program. I signed up, and the violin was the instrument that I ended up with, and I took to it pretty quickly.”
He got an early boost studying at the famed Juilliard School in weekend classes aimed at under-represented minorities.
He went on to attend the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the Aaron Copland School of Music and Queens College.
Muñoz said his long-term goal is to explore music not traditionally played by orchestras in order to expand the audience base.
“I think that’s really important for musicians of the future, to have this versatility, to be well versed in different kinds of music,” he said. “I’d like to bring some of that diversity in music to the repertoire of the orchestra.”
As just one example, Muñoz plans to conduct “Finding Rothko,” Los Angeles composer Adam Schoenberg’s chamber-orchestra piece inspired by the abstract expressionist painter, in May 2015.
Muñoz takes over at a time when symphonies throughout the country are facing declining audiences and incomes. Just last month, the Minnesota Orchestra ended a 16th-month standoff with its players union after the musicians agreed to a 15 percent pay cut.
The Phoenix Symphony, with annual revenue topping $13 million in fiscal 2012-13, went through its own crisis three years ago. Faced with a $3 million debt and another $2.1 million in projected annual deficits, it was on the verge of bankruptcy. New CEO Jim Ward negotiated a 19 percent salary cut with the musicians to get the budget under control, but he also led efforts to raise the orchestra’s public profile through education initiatives and community partnerships.
“We were looking for someone who could come into the organization and continue to build on the momentum that we’ve had,” Ward said.
Muñoz also will be building on the successes of Michael Christie, a popular maestro who expanded the orchestra’s repertoire to include more contemporary and American composers, and raised the level of its musicianship. He stepped down last spring after accepting the music-director post at Minnesota Opera.
After Christie’s eight-year tenure, “The symphony can play any piece of music that it needs to, and it can respond to any guest conductor,” said Richard Nilsen, former classical-music critic for The Arizona Republic, who retired in 2012.
As a young, ambitious conductor, Muñoz seems to fit into the same mold as his predecessor.
“When I think of Tito, the first thing I think of is versatility,” said Gary Ginstling, former general managerof the Cleveland Orchestra, where Muñoz served as assistant conductor for three years.
“We threw a lot at him … both the core classics but also experimenting with contemporary music,” said Ginstling, who now leads the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
“He also agreed to lead our foray into presenting full-time ballet productions. He didn’t have much experience there, but he became our go-to guy for ballet.
“He’s an inspired choice for an orchestra looking for an exciting 21st-century music director.”
Reach the reporter at kerry.lengel@arizonarepublic .com or 602-444-4896.