The Music Director of the Opéra National de Lorraine and the Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy, Queens native Tito Muñoz had never been to Phoenix before he agreed to guest conduct the Phoenix Symphony.
Muñoz, who previously served as assistant conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, will lead the symphony in Barber’s The School for Scandal, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 and Ravel’s Concerto in G Major, which puts the spotlight on pianist Benjamin Hochman, winner of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant for 2011.
Muñoz shared his thoughts on the symphony program, conducting and his life in music.
Question: How did you come to develop an interest in classical music?
Answer: I suppose my interest in classical music began when I started to play the violin, in middle school. I was around 12 years old and playing in the orchestra. I didn’t really take private lessons until a little later. And then, my music teacher recommended me to this program at the Juilliard School called the Music Advancement Program, for underrepresented minorities in classical music — mainly Indians, Hispanics and African-Americans. I happened to fit one of those demographics, luckily. I wasn’t poor, but I happened to be Hispanic and that brings certain opportunities. It was an amazing thing because I was able to go to Juilliard every Saturday and take lessons and theory and orchestra and do all of these amazing things really early on. So I think when I got exposed to that, I fell in love with it.
Q: How did you go from performing to conducting?
A: That sort of came about maybe as a Type A thing. I wasn’t so much attracted by the actual conducting as the leadership. And I’ve played in orchestras since I started playing the violin. So it almost seemed like a natural next step for me. I mean, I miss playing, for sure. But I think that’s what led to it.
Q: Do you perform at all?
A: Not so much anymore. I mean, I try to, as much as I can. But I’m so busy as a conductor now that it’s very hard to find time. Right now, I’m living in New York, so a lot of my friends from when I lived here before I moved to Cincinnati, are still here. So I get to play with them every once in a while.
Q: If you’re living in New York, how does being a music director in France work?
A: Like most music directorships, there’s only a limited amount of time that you have to be there. So I’m there for the weeks I need to be there in addition to any administrative weeks. Otherwise, I’m living somewhere else. So I commute to France about four or five times a year, in chunks, and spend some time with the orchestra. The rest of the time, it’s guest conductors.
Q: Could you talk about the program you’ll be guest conducting here?
A: I guess the centerpiece is Shostakovich 10, which is a huge work. Then, I’m also doing Barber’s School for Scandal and Ravel’s piano concerto with Benny Hochman, which I’m really excited about because I’ve never worked with him and he’s a good friend. I don’t think there’s an intentional connection between the pieces. I think they just complement each other well, which is one way of programming. Sometimes, you can find a theme that connects everything or you can pick three pieces that go well together, and I think they do.
The School for Scandal overture, which was Barber’s first prize-winning work, is an amazing piece. It’s a fantastic showpiece for the orchestra and an exciting way to open a program. Ravel was really taken by the ’20s jazz movement in America, and he incorporates a lot of that into both of his piano pieces, Concerto for the Left Hand and this G Major concerto. So it’s a dazzling showpiece for the pianist.
And then the Shostakovitch piece, which he wrote much earlier than people knew about, was inspired by his feelings against Stalin. He wrote it almost as a sort of diary and kept it away for a long time until after Stalin had died. And then, he pulled it out and presented it. It’s basically a portrait of Stalin, the second movement in particular. It’s very scary in a way, brooding textures, brooding atmosphere and a very long first movement. It’s a really massive work.
Q: For as vastly different as the pieces are, what do you think it is that makes them work together?
A: I think the fact that you go through a range of emotion, a range of styles. I always think of music as this amazing way for composers to spill their emotions into something without any limits or barriers. You have a very young, uninhibited, in a way naive Barber. You have Ravel trying his hand at jazz and just sort of going for that. And you have Shostakovich, who sort of wrote this thing in secret, trying to let out his emotions in that way. So you have these three very un-bashful works that really, I think, represent each composer very personally in a lot of ways.
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