Joffrey Performances mark Tito Muñoz' finale with The Cleveland Orchestra

August 30, 2010
Mike Telin


Tito Muñoz takes the podium this weekend to lead the Cleveland Orchestra in two performances with the Joffrey Ballet, performances that will mark the end of his three year tenure as Assistant Conductor of the orchestra as well as a League of American Orchestras Conducting Fellow. As he moves on to the next stage in his career, with many wonderful Cleveland Orchestra concerts to his credit, we wanted to ask him about the Joffrey performances and his plans for “Life After the Cleveland Orchestra”. We spoke with him via Skype in Italy, where he was traveling with the Orchestra at the end of its European Festivals tour.

Mike Telin: You have worked with Joffrey in the past?

Tito Muñoz: The only time was last summer when I did the Blossom performances. But like last summer, I have already gone to Chicago to see what they are doing, and observe the rehearsals.

MT: Do you enjoy conducting in the pit?

TM: Sure, it is fun. It poses its own difficulties and unique challenges, but it is rewarding in its own way. It is much more then just a concert and leading or guiding an orchestra through a piece; there is a lot more coordination on my part when I am in the pit. Yes it has its own challenges but I love it, I really enjoy it.

MT: Musically speaking it is a beautiful program that includes the music of Phillip Glass, and the Martinů 2nd Symphony as well as the Tchaikovsky 'Rococo Variations' for Cello and Orchestra. This program contains two concertos, the 'Rococo Variations' and the Gottschalk 'Tarantella', for piano and orchestra. What are the challenges of conducting a concerto that is also being danced?

TM: The Gottschalk is a very straightforward piece. It is basically one tempo. As long as we start and end in the same tempo, it should be OK. The Rococo Variations is more free, especially for the cellist. There can be a lot of rubato, but not in this case. We are going to have a rehearsal with just Mark [Kowoser], a pianist, myself and the dancers without the orchestra, so he can get a feel for what they are doing, so once we get with the orchestra it should not be a problem.

MT: These concerts mark the end of your tenure as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra as well as the League of American Orchestras Conducting Fellow. What does it mean to be a LAO conducting fellow?

TM: First, the conducting fellow and the assistant conductor positions are two separate things. As far as the Cleveland Orchestra is concerned, I am an assistant conductor. And the fellowship is through the League of American Orchestras. There are five of us floating around, and basically each person who receives one of the fellowships is an assistant conductor of an orchestra. And the fellowship provides way of enhancing the position by offering career development resources. So we are called the League of American Orchestras Fellows, but as far as the orchestra is concerned I am a staff conductor and I auditioned for the job just like everybody else.

MT: How does the League define career development?

TM: It could be anything, and it is very unfortunate that the LAO is not going to continue the program. But as far as career development, it could be anything that we feel that we need. A goal could be getting more experience conducting a certain type of music, or perhaps we need to work on our French or Italian. Even if there is a certain conductor, other then our own music director that we want to observe and get to know, the program can help with that. The program offers financial assistance as well as the many connections that they have.

MT: How have you grown as a conductor over the past three years?

TM: First, any opportunity to be in front of the Cleveland Orchestra is a wonderful experience for somebody to learn. They are so supportive and nurturing. Even just observing, being in the rehearsals and watching them [work] and being able to figure why it is that they do what they do. We know they are good, but to really know why, to really understand what the process is that makes them sound so great: this is certainly one of the many things that I will take with me wherever I go.

MT: What challenges and opportunities do you see as you move forward in your career?

TM: The sky is the limit, but conducting is a very strange profession and the more that I get into it, the more I realize how odd this profession is. Now that I am leaving the orchestra and looking for something more permanent, whether that be a music director position or guest conducting, there are so many directions one can go. You can establish yourself, for example as a pops or ballet conductor or maybe something else. In general this is how the business works. At this point what I still need to figure this out for myself. I need to learn more repertoire, and guest conduct more in order to get the repertoire under my belt. Teaching is also an option. As I said the sky is the limit. I am a freelancer now, and basically, although it is glamorized, conductors are freelancers.

MT: In addition to the violin, you seem to have focused on conducting from the very beginning of you musical studies; what initially attracted you to conducting?

TM: That’s funny because I don’t think that I focused on conducting any earlier then anyone else, but I think the opportunities came to me much quicker, for whatever reason. That is just how life is -- for some people it just takes longer then it does for others. You have to be at the right place at the right time. I could still be back in New York freelancing as a violinist. Also, I was not so interested in conducting just to conduct, but more so because conducting is really about being a leader, and I was always taking leadership roles in things like playing chamber music. I also led many concerts from the concertmaster chair as opposed to conducting, in the Orpheus [chamber orchestra] style. I have always been that sort of person, taking charge. Even when I am out to dinner with a big group of people and everyone is trying to figure out the check, I just take the check and figure it out. That is my personality.

So conducting just seemed to be the natural next step. I put together groups in school in order to conduct. That’s how I made my first video in order to be able to apply for programs. That’s how they judge you, you send them a video and that’s what they use to decide to accept you or not.

MT: Where did you send your video?

TM: I sent it to the Aspen Music Festival, which, for me, was the impetus for everything that happened afterwards. I didn’t have any formal training in conducting until I went to Aspen. That was also where I met David Zinman, and he became my teacher and mentor. That’s how it all started. I think I was a sophomore in college when I sent the tape. I did three summers there and after the third summer is when I won the job with the Cincinnati Symphony. It was a very quick transition. Like I said, I don’t think that I started any earlier then others, but the opportunities came to me very quickly. This something I am very grateful for.

MT: Finally, what advice to do have for young people who are considering conducting as a career?

TM: I would say stick to your instrument. I don’t mean this to sound like I’m discouraging anyone from being a conductor, but I do think that one of the plagues of the conducting profession is conductors who have never really paid their dues as a player. It is like being a leader of anything, whether you are a stage director, or you are a principal of a school, you can’t really lead a group of people unless you know what they are going through. Many have never been professional musicians, and that creates a disconnect between [the podium] and musicians, and the musicians can smell that a mile away. So I would tell anyone to spend as much time as possible playing in orchestras and playing chamber music, because this is the only way to gain the musical abilities that are needed when you do get on the podium.   >>printable version

Tito Muñoz conducts The Cleveland Orchestra in identical performances with the Joffrey Ballet on September 4 & 5 at 8:30 at Blossom.