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New music director for Phoenix Symphony crescendos to prominence through youth

The baton rises and hovers, commanding the attention of a still symphony hall. With a mere, almost imperceptible flick of the conductor’s wrist, the musicians know it is time to launch into swelling, vociferous music.

Leading the Phoenix Symphony is their new music director, Tito Muñoz. At 31, he is the 11th director in the company’s history.

Muñoz said he entered the classical music world over two decades ago during middle school in Queens, New York, where he was born and raised.

“My middle school had a strings program, and so I started the violin,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I started a program at the Juilliard School that I began taking it seriously.”

Photo by Tea Francesca Price

Recommended by his violin instructor, Muñoz auditioned for the Juilliard School at the age of 13 and was accepted into the Music Advancement Program. Juilliard President Joseph Polisi created the program to help minorities become involved in Western classical music, Muñoz said.

The Juilliard School, located within the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, opens doors for youth like Muñoz. While an individual’s talent is a predominant factor for success, Juilliard’s prestigious title and prime location offers students chances to network.

Muñoz studied at Juilliard every Saturday for two years before joining the Manhattan School of Music’s Saturday pre-college program and the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York.

Muñoz said he made conducting opportunities for himself with friends during high school, even directing a pit orchestra for three years at a summer camp called French Woods.

“It was a theater camp for kids who want be on Broadway,” Muñoz said. “So my first real big conducting experience was conducting musicals.”

Stepping out of the violin section and onto the podium was something almost inevitable, Muñoz said. While playing in orchestra, he always aimed to be principal second or concertmaster, but not for a competitive reason.

“A lot of my friends wanted to be up at the front because it meant they were the best,” he said. “It was never that for me. I always had an idea of where I wanted things to go and the only way to do that was through being up front.”

Muñoz said he wouldn’t just hear the violin or other string sections during rehearsals but would be aware of the entire orchestra and any hiccups the group made at large. He said he would want to correct them and take on more responsibility.

“Conducting, for me, is all about leadership,” he said. “That’s the main thing about it. That kind of characteristic of my personality — that type-A quality — has always made me an observer.”

The transition from musician to conductor, especially as a string musician, offers Muñoz an edge. He said more than half of the orchestra is made up of string sections, which require more care.

“You have to spend time making sure everyone’s on the same page,” Muñoz said. “Being a string player helps me because I can speak the language and explain or show them what I want.”

Many things that are second-nature responses to musicians are the same for a conductor, he said.

“You can learn to conduct a pattern that looks nice,” Muñoz said. “But you’re going to be lacking something on the podium and the musicians will be able to tell.”

Muñoz worked with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra as an assistant conductor. He lived in France for two years and worked as music director of the Opera National de Lorraine and Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy.

While he enjoyed his time conducting with other companies, Muñoz said he was offered the position with the Phoenix Symphony at a point where he wanted to take on something of his own.

“It was the orchestra,” Muñoz said. “I really like the players, and the management is really good. It’s certainly a positive situation, and I feel like there is a lot of potential to try new things.”

As music director, Muñoz has many tasks to juggle. Other than being the public face of the Symphony and auditioning musicians, he has the task of building a season’s program.

When choosing pieces for a concert, Muñoz said he must consider a soloist’s schedule and repertoire. Performances that require hiring extra musicians must be balanced with smaller ones, he said.

“Artistically, I also try to develop some type of program for the orchestra — pieces that are good for them to do,” he said.

Conscious that audiences are affected by all his decisions, Muñoz said he hopes to draw in audiences regardless if they are familiar with the symphony scene or not.

“I think what my experience in other places has given me is a really good sense of what works and what doesn’t,” Muñoz said. “For me, the big thing as far as getting people more interested in what we do is not the music itself, it’s the way we present it. For people who haven’t experienced the symphony before, it can be very off-putting.”

In order to encourage younger audiences to attend concerts, the Phoenix Symphony created the College Club, allowing local college students to pay a flat rate of $30 to attend an unlimited number of concerts, said Jim Ward, president and CEO of the Phoenix Symphony.

Students can also show a college ID one hour before a concert to purchase tickets for $11.50, Ward said.

Ward said he believes having Muñoz on board is a promising prospect for the symphony, especially because his youth can help shape the company into something that appeals to a larger audience.

“We’re very fortunate to have Tito,” Ward said. “He’s inspiring our musicians artistically, and he’s committed to the same mission as us, which is to be of service to the community, particularly in education.”

Phoenix Symphony Chief Operating Officer Katie Cobb said the staff and musicians are excited for Tito’s artistic leadership.

“He’s going to bring world-class guest artists to a world-class orchestra, and I think patrons are in for a great experience,” Cobb said.

The 2014 season begins Friday and Saturday, Sept. 19-20, with Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Stravinksky’s “Firebird Suite.”

“We wanted it to be big,” Muñoz said. “The ‘O Fortuna’ will have not only the full orchestra, but soloists and a chorus on stage, so it’s a nice welcome.”

As for the selection of “Firebird,” Muñoz said it was a coincidence considering the city of Phoenix’s mythological symbol.

“Seriously, it wasn’t a gimmick,” Muñoz said with a laugh. “It was the piece played in my first youth orchestra, during my first time conducting a full orchestra and during my first subscription concert with a major orchestra. It’s a just a piece of firsts that’s very special to me.”

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