Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
I first began studying music when I was about 11 years old. I took up the violin in my public school’s music program. An older cousin of mine played violin, so I decided to give it a try as well. I remember being very attracted to it right from the beginning and excelled at it quite quickly. My orchestra teacher introduced me to a Saturday program offered by the Juilliard School called the Music Advancement Program, which I successfully auditioned for. In addition, I moved on to a performing arts high school located just across the street from Juilliard, on the Lincoln Center campus. Spending the entire week studying music in such a rich environment is most certainly a large reason for my desire to pursue music as a career.
Conducting, for me, was a natural extension of my love for the music and my personality. I consider myself as having a bit of a “Type A” personality. When playing in orchestras, I remember always having a very distinct and strong idea of how I wanted things to go. At times, I would voice those ideas to those higher up on the totem pole; either to the leader of the section, or to the conductor themself, which wasn’t usually prudent. This made me eager to practice and get better at the violin so I could earn leadership positions as a player and be able to implement some of my ideas.
I also remember a distinct moment in one of my first orchestral experiences which made me extremely fascinated at the conductor’s role. I was sitting in the back of the second violin section, close to the timpani, during a rehearsal of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations when the conductor made a comment to the timpani player about the tuning of his drums. Being a bit of a novice in the orchestra, I had never before realized that the timpani could be tuned to specific pitches. It impressed me that the conductor could hear this and it made me want to know what else the conductor would hear and fix during the rehearsals.
That experience intensified my intrigue of the conductor’s job and I began to pursue opportunities to conduct. In school, I put together my own groups of peers and read through small works. I also participated as a student and a staff member at a performing arts summer camp which gave me the opportunity to conduct many fully-staged Broadway musical productions. After that, I was hooked, but the biggest stepping stone came from being admitted to the Aspen Music Festival as a conducting student. This opportunity opened many doors, and was the real beginning of my professional life as a conductor.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
I credit every mentor I have had over the years as being extremely important and influential to me, so it’s very difficult to narrow it down. My last violin teacher, Daniel Phillips, helped me refine so much of my music-making as a violinist, and showed me how to always search for more colors in my playing. Charles Neidich, the clarinetist and conductor, taught me how one should immerse themselves in a score and composer, and helped me shape my entire philosophy of ensemble playing. David Zinman, my conducting teacher at Aspen, gave me all the tools to make an orchestra go. I’m still awed by his ability to communicate with an orchestra without saying a word, and then be able to teach it to his students.
And then there were the many influential musicians who have supported me in my professional life. Paavo Järvi and Franz Welser-Möst, in Cincinnati and Cleveland respectively, believing in me and giving me my first professional positions. The late Kurt Masur generously offering mentorship not only when he guest conducted in Cleveland, but in masterclasses, and granting me a scholarship to travel and study with him in Germany. The late Pierre Boulez whom I spent a great deal of time with during his trips to Cleveland, but whom I also ended up replacing on the podium in his very last trip to the United States before he passed. Even under doctor’s orders not to conduct, he came to my rehearsals and coached me. I will never forget that experience.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?
For me, the most challenging part of being a conductor is perhaps the most fulfilling at the same time. I see my job as a coach; sometime who must galvanize a group, no matter what their level and comprehension of the musical material in front of them, to produce the best performance they can at the end of the rehearsal period. For professional orchestras, that’s only a few days, and often with music they already know quite well. For younger and/or less experienced groups, it could be several weeks, and with music they may not have ever played before. The process is essentially the same, but the psychology is different. And even among professional groups, there are so many variables which affect the workplace culture, so you have to have those leadership/interpersonal skills to be able to read a room and be as effective as possible. Sometimes it doesn’t go as well as you want it to, but when things do click, that’s when the magic happens, and it reminds everyone on that stage why we do what we do.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
With professionals, this changes with each ensemble. Some orchestras (particularly smaller orchestras) enjoy a real dialogue with each other and with the conductor, where there’s a significant amount of musician contribution in the rehearsal process. Other orchestras expect most, if not all, of the direction to come only from the conductor. No matter what the situation, I’m always prepared with my own very clear ideas of the piece, and I’m always prepared to be flexible for whatever the ensemble’s culture might allow. I make it a point to begin a rehearsal by playing through a work and conveying as much as I can with only my gestures. This creates a solid foundation for the rest of the rehearsal process.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
All of the above. It’s my responsibility to foster an environment in which each performer can do their best. It’s also my responsibility to guide the interpretation of the work, and this can only come from study. So, it’s important for me to come to the table with a very well-thought vision for the work that makes sense to the musicians for them to perform it.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
There are many wonderful operas I have yet to lead: Der Rosenkavalier, La Bohème, Don Giovanni, to name a few.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Severance Hall in Cleveland has so far been my most favorite venue to perform in. There are still many great concert halls that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to perform in, so the answer could change in the coming years.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Too many to list! I’m also amazed at how many wonderful new works are being created by composers of today. Championing new music is something I’m very passionate about.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Giving an audience an experience they didn’t expect to have.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
The most important thing I tell young musicians is that being a professional is not the only way to be able to play and perform music at a high level. There are many outlets to do so, even if you don’t choose music as your profession. I feel that there is so much pressure for young music students to follow a certain path at a certain time. Life experience is crucial to develop a music voice and personality. You won’t have anything to say unless you live through things that can help you relate to the composers who wrote what you’re playing.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
No idea! I’ve enjoyed the experiences this profession has given me, and I look forward to all of the new ones that will come my way!
On 29 November 2019 Tito Muñoz conducts Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.3 (with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet) and Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 at Ulster Hall. More information about the concert here: https://www.ulsterorchestra.org.uk/whats-on/bavouzet-inspired-by-bartok/.
Praised for his versatility, technical clarity, and keen musical insight, Tito Muñoz is internationally recognized as one of the most gifted conductors on the podium today. Now in his sixth season as Music Director of the Phoenix Symphony, Tito previously served as Music Director of the Opéra National de Lorraine and the Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy in France.