Classical Music

Tito Muñoz on Conducting, Gimmicks and Why Clapping Between Movements Is Okay

This weekend conductor Tito Muñoz joins the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for its second ReMix concert. The orchestra's new series touts a "faster-paced" experience, which is basically symphony marketing code for "we want young people to buy tickets to this concert" and "you can bring your drinks into the hall." This weekend's program, which looks great, features music by Stravinsky, Piazzola and Schumann. Concerts begin at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and are held at the smaller, more intimate Dallas City Performance Hall instead of the Meyerson Symphony Center.

The DSO made a good call when they snagged Muñoz to conduct for this series. At 30, he brings energy and youth to the podium and his association with the highly successful Manhattan club/lounge/music venue (Le) Poisson Rouge (LPR) gives him some "cool" classical music cred. LPR is known for integrating classical music with other genres in a modern cabaret atmosphere where both inventive art and alcohol are abundant.

I spoke with Muñoz over the phone about some of the music he'll be conducting this weekend, how he decided to become a conductor and what he thinks of the slew of new series like ReMix that orchestras are launching in an attempt to reach younger audiences. Below are excerpts from our conversation:

The DSO is featuring Piazzola's "Four Seasons" in their advertising for this concert. Tell me a little about the piece.

It is kind of the most interesting piece on the program. It's definitely the piece that is off the beaten path for the repertoire and it is actually a very funky, very cool piece. You know, you hear "Four Seasons" and you think of Vivaldi right away, but the "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires" were originally written as separate pieces that didn't have anything to do with each other and they certainly weren't an homage to Vivaldi in any way. They were written for a typical tango group -- violin, bandoneón and bass. It was the arranger, Leonid Desyatnikov, who thought, "Oh, why don't we make a little updated 'Four Seasons' with it?" He took the piece, using the same elements, the same themes, basically the same structures, but added in some references to Vivaldi and a very virtuosic solo for violin.

Are the references to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" pretty literal? Like, will we recognize those tunes in the piece?

You will definitely hear them. A lot of people respond to it because they recognize those elements. Sometimes the references are written into the fabric of the music and sometimes they are written as a parody, but it's very much there.

You started as a violinist. How did you decide to become a conductor?

It's interesting. I've made most of my living here in New York as a freelance violinist. I still play sometimes. I think my interest in conducting came from that "Type A" side of my personality. I always wanted to be first chair in orchestra and first violin in quartet and not necessarily because I wanted to the best -- of course you always strive to be as good as you can -- but because I had ideas that I wanted to implement. Sitting in the front was the only appropriate way to do that.

And you know, I was in four orchestras at the same time in high school. I went to LaGuardia High School (the high school from the movie Fame). I was so immersed in classical music, and I fell in love with it. All of that combined to kind of lead me to want to take that step up to the podium and give it a try. Luckily I had a lot of opportunities to do that and they came bigger and quicker than performance opportunities. You know, my first job out of college was a conducting job with the Cincinnati Symphony. I wasn't going to say no to that, so I said yes. And I've been a conductor ever since.

It seems many classical organizations are trying to recreate some of what (Le) Poisson Rouge does so well, with series like the DSO's ReMix concerts. Obviously, the goal is to attract younger audiences. You've been involved with so many of these ventures. Do you think they are successful or is it kind of a gimmick?

It seems like sometimes classical organizations are pretty self-involved and they get caught up in the gimmicks. They talk about how great and wonderful these kinds of things are for classical music without actually asking the question, "Is this working or not?" The short answer is that I have no idea. The long-winded answer is that I have had so many experiences in so many situations that have both proven and disproved it. There are so many variables because everyone tries to do something and inevitably some part gets lost or is done wrong or incorrectly. Everyone's heart is in the right place. Everyone's mindset is in the right place. Everyone has the same goal, but in the end I think a lot of things are lost because something just doesn't quite work.

Can you give me some examples?

Le Poisson Rouge is a very cool, very cutting edge venue. One experience I had there that was so telling for me was one night when the main act was a heavy metal band and the opening act was a Shostakovitch string quartet. Everybody in the audience was a metal head -- they were definitely there for the band, not the string quartet -- but they sat there in such rapt attention during the string quartet and there was a standing ovation afterwards. I think they were so enthralled because of course the emotions and a lot of the feelings are the same.

I mean, they come from the same place. Everyone got it and it was so visceral because the space is so intimate. Everyone can see the struggles the players have just to perform the piece. That tells me that there's nothing wrong with the music. Like anything, it's all about the context you put it in and what the experience is like. So it's not a gimmick as long as it is really about making the experience comfortable and inviting. I think that's the most important thing. The goal is not the gimmick. The goal should be the music. The goal should be the experience that everybody has, making sure it inviting and not pretentious and actually fun and easy. Really, in the end, it should be easy. People should come and just enjoy the music however they want to enjoy it.

Does it bother you when there are lots of extraneous sounds in the hall from drinks and what not?

Not at all. I think when people get upset about clapping between movements for instance, that's sort of a self-righteous issue. Sometimes, yeah, I mean when a cell phone goes off during the slow movement of Mahler Nine then yes, that's a problem. But if the orchestra comes to the end of a movement -- like in the Tchaikovsky violin concerto there's this huge D major chord and people want to clap because that's what Tchaikovsky intended for you to do -- and nobody claps and everybody is shushing anyone who starts clapping, I think that's totally wrong. In the end, its a show. We are entertainment. We are a museum but we are entertainment also. We need to accept that. From the musicians to the administration to the audience, I think everyone needs to just take a step back and not get so hoity-toity about what we're doing.

Katie Womack, classical pianist and much cooler piano teacher than you remember from when you were a kid, writes about classical music for Mixmaster. Have an idea for something she should write about? Deposit tips in the comments.

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Katie Womack
Contact: Katie Womack