In conversation with WYSO conductor Tito Muñoz
Tito Muñoz steps in this week to conduct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the fourth WYSO concert of the season, performed alongside DSO members.
Muñoz, music director of the Phoenix Symphony, will conduct Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Symphonic Variations on an African Air, Op. 63 on Friday.
WYSO will perform Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27 on Sunday.
IPR’s Nancy Deneen spoke with Muñoz to find out more.
Listen to the entire interview or read the edited transcript below.
On his first Interlochen experience
It's been great. It's my first time at Interlochen. The essence of the place is so palpable, and the students, wow. The orchestra is at such a high level. I mean, I was really, really impressed with how fast they learn. And they're playing a big piece – Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. So it's quite a challenge for young people to do a piece like that in such a short amount of time.
On his unexpected early arrival at Interlochen
I was always slated to come here for week six. But as is happening all around the arts industry right now, there are lots of cancellations, lots of people catching COVID. We're all always prepared to get on a plane and fill in if we have to. In this case, I'm filling in for Jader Bignamini, Detroit Symphony music director, and thankfully, he's doing just fine.
It was quite a crazy story. I was at the Brevard Music Festival last week. I landed in New York, where I live, on Monday. I turned on my phone as soon as the plane landed and got a text message from my agent that said "call me right away." So I did, and it was a call from the Detroit Symphony asking if I was free to fill in. So, here I am. I went home for about three hours and then took another plane to come here. And it's been really, really, really wonderful. So I'm excited about this and super excited about coming back for week six.
I've been on the opposite end of it, too, actually. I had an engagement with the New York Philharmonic, in fact, that got canceled because I caught COVID. That was about a month ago. So it's happening to everybody, and we're all looking out for each other. Thankfully in that situation, a dear friend happened to be the cover conductor for that week, and she was able to step in and make her debut with the New York Philharmonic. It was fortuitous for her, and thankfully my situation with the virus was very mild. We're just hoping for the best. I think everybody's trying to look out for each other and be as safe and healthy as possible.
On his hopes for students this week
In this situation, it's even more of a special and immersive experience. Because not only are the students going to play with the members of the Detroit Symphony on Sunday, they're going to get a chance to hear the Detroit Symphony on their own tomorrow night because they're playing a special concert for the community here at Interlochen.
Since they've been rehearsing with me the entire week and I'm the one conducting the DSO tomorrow night, they will be able to see those insights at play as audience members. I think it makes them higher-level concertgoers. Their ears will hopefully be more in tune to the nuances that are going on with the professionals. And in that same vein, they're going to get a chance to actually see it in action right next to them, having an amazing professional musician of the highest caliber sitting right there, doing those things we work on in the rehearsals. So I think this situation is about as immersive as you can possibly get.
On conducting youth ensembles
Conducting a professional orchestra has its own unique challenges. My teachers always used to say, "the better the orchestra, the harder it is to conduct" because you have to be that much better as a musician. They can see right away if you know what they're doing and understand the group vibe, the music making, the communication and all the nuances. And that's what I love about teaching. I love going to young, talented groups, giving them those insights and teaching them what to listen for and what to do. So that's really exciting.
Here at Interlochen, even during my rehearsals with WYSO, there are faculty that come and help. We'll have, for example, Celeste Golden, who's on the violin faculty. She'll be sitting right next to me observing the strings, so I'll say something, and then she can back me up, get a bit more technical or just be more observant with the students than I can because I have to oversee everything. So it's great to have the support of high-level professionals because they can get into much more detail than I ever could. And when somebody can show you how to do it, not just say or sing it, but actually, physically with their instrument be able to say "this is how you do it," it's that much more illuminating for students.
On his musical background
Becoming a musician came very gradually. I went to an arts high school as well. I went to the LaGuardia High School of the Arts in New York, which is the famous "Fame" school that the movie and musical are based on. So there are aspects of the Interlochen life that are very familiar to me. I see the level of the students, how they interact with each other and how normal some things are that would be very abnormal for most young people in a normal high school situation.
For me, I think the idea of becoming a musician as a professional was never out of the ordinary or out of the question just because it was already part of my culture and what I was doing. I was in so many youth orchestras because growing up in New York City, you can be immersed in classical music and not even realize it - doing the New York Youth Symphony on Sundays, Juilliard pre-college on Saturdays, youth orchestra after school on Wednesdays – you're totally immersed in it.
So I loved it so much, I think I just wanted to give it a try. If I didn't do music, I probably would have done computer programming or something nerdy like that. But I gave it a try. I had a violin teacher that I really loved. And the conducting, I think, just came out of my type-A tendencies. I always gravitated toward leadership roles because I always started to think about a vision for what I wanted. If I was sitting in the violin section, I would be like, "no, we should do this bowing, we should do it this way." But of course, you can't do that from the back of the section and be a backseat conductor. So I worked really hard to get to the front.
I think the first time I was in a really big youth orchestra, I was also very fascinated by the conductor himself and what he heard that I wasn't hearing yet – what he observed and what he noticed, and all the things that he was rehearsing that my inexperienced, 14-year-old self didn't really understand yet. That made me want to listen more intently and at a higher level. And then eventually, I got some opportunities with some of my colleagues, some of my peers in high school, to lead some things I played in the pit orchestra. We did West Side Story one year, and I loved that. I remember getting the score from the Juilliard library, bringing it to rehearsals every day and getting really, really involved. And when I was in college, I put together ad hoc groups to conduct.
So conducting was something that I was fascinated by, but I didn't know what the prospects could be of making it a profession. I didn't even think about that. But then, because it was free to apply, I applied to the Aspen Music Festival as a conductor. And I got in. I was about 20 years old, and that was really the turning point for me.
On inspiring future generations of musicians
I've worked at other festivals, and there was a camp that I attended as a young violinist called the Kinhaven Music School in Vermont. It's much smaller than Interlochen. They have one orchestra and some pianists. It's a wonderful place, and because I'm an alum, I conduct there every year. And every summer, there are people who are in those formative years figuring out what they want to do.
A lot of my colleagues at Kinhaven are very adamant about telling people that you don't necessarily have to be professional to play music at a high level. You can keep it in your life at a level that's comfortable for you even if you don't decide to go into it as a professional. And that, I think, is very freeing for a lot of students, when they don't have to put that pressure on themselves if it really isn't something they want to do that competitively. And that makes it more of a positive memory. They think back on that time with the faculty, with the people they interact with, in a very positive way. And sometimes it ends up making them want to keep the music in their lives more. Whenever I teach, that's always the kind of thing I like to instill. Yes, you want to keep discipline and keep things at a high level, but you also don't want to beat yourself up too much. You want to keep it positive. So I'm hoping that whenever I do have those interactions with students, these are exactly the kind of memories they have. And that might trigger some kind of inspiration for a future in music.