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Outgoing Phoenix Symphony director warns a city this size needs more support for the arts

The Phoenix Symphony is in the middle of its season, with performances of Broadway showtunes, the music of Queen, a fusion of classical and rap and pieces by composers including Mozart, Mahler, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven still to come. But when the current season ends this spring, it will also mark the end of the tenure of the symphony’s conductor and music director.

Tito Muñoz will be leaving the Phoenix Symphony after 10 years. He joined The Show to talk about his time leading the orchestra and what comes to mind for him when he looks back at his time at the helm.

Full interview

TITO MUÑOZ: It was my first American job, my first American music director job. I had a a music director job in France before I was here. And it is very different, it's very different in, in the United States than in Europe. There are a lot of, you know, there, there's the, the financial structure of orchestras or of performing arts in general here, which is not for profit. It's all, you know, private financing, whereas in Europe, it's a lot of public, it's mostly public.

And, and so that actually, you know, creates different priorities sometimes, you know, for the job and for the leadership positions, both myself and the administrative leadership, the CEO or the executive director, however they're called. And so it's a, it's a, it's a pretty interesting position to be in, I mean, for, for me in Phoenix, it was a, it was a big learning curve in the, in the beginning, to sort of figure out what the priorities needed to be, to see where the orchestra was at musically. And that's always a challenge with an orchestra, especially in America because orchestras are, do so many things. And so that actually in, in some ways, is, is really interesting for the orchestra because it keeps things kind of different and fresh and the variety, but it can be very, very difficult to really create a trajectory.

And so that was something that I had to figure out in the beginning, was how was I going to, you know, achieve some of the goals that I had for the orchestra artistically within the framework of the system that we have? So that was sort of one thing.

But, but given that it's been wonderful to, you know, work with such talented artists. I mean, the orchestra itself is very talented, I've been able to bring in a lot of really wonderful guest artists to work with the orchestra. We've done some great, great music and a lot of new music, which is a big passion of mine is doing contemporary music, contemporary classical music, I should say, you know, new, new works.

And maybe the, the biggest thing for me is we started a couple of years ago, right after COVID, we started a contemporary music sort of week, a fest. We call it a festival, but it's really just a week. It's two programs. But it, it allows me to bring in a, somebody in, in that field of contemporary classical music, somebody who's doing really big, great things and to curate their own week basically with the orchestra with me. That's been very cool because that's something that the orchestra really never has done before. Really a very kind of intensive week of contemporary music.

Yeah. Well, so I'm curious, you mentioned the, the financial aspect of it and trying to bring in new works. I would imagine there's a balance there, right? Because if you're gonna play sort of the, the greatest hits, like people know those, they're probably likely to come hear them, but you probably have to balance that both for interests sake and for sort of advancing the genre's sake, right? To bring in new artists, maybe works that people have never heard of before or brand new. How do you try to make that, make that balance?

MUÑOZ: It's ... a never-ending jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, it's, it's, it's, it's just, you know, there's never a good answer. Every year is different, you know, coming out of COVID, everything was different as we all were. We're experiencing, you know, people's behavior as far as concert going and just going out, changed their priorities changed and so our priorities sort of had to change. Yeah, I mean, it's a lot of experimenting, a lot of just seeing what works and what doesn't.

So, and that, that's the thing about orchestras is that, and about any performing arts that some things work in the city, in that particular city that maybe won't work in other places and vice versa. And so, in Phoenix, it's been really, really interesting to, to try to crack that nut. No pun intended. Just to see how that works because like, like the Nutcracker, which is a cash cow for an organization, like, like the, like a ballet company, we know we have certain works that we know will usually draw a big crowd and usually can be that thing. But, you know, but again, you know, we, we could easily go down that route and just do the money making things, right?

And that's something that, and then, then if, if we decide that that's gonna be our priority, then we're no different than putting on a Vegas show that's literally just for profit, you know, then, then it's not helping anything. And that's why it's really, really important that we, we spread the word to the public that having an orchestra is culturally relevant. It's culturally important.

It's also just financially important for a city. You know, it's a lot of, it's a driver of the economy. So to get the, the, the, the government and the, the, the political community involved.

And yeah, and that balance, because I do want to have a group that, that feels like they're, they're doing things that are advancing themselves. That they're, they're really, you know, and the other thing that is really, really important for an orchestra, I think, and this is something that's just, I think evolving all over the industry is the orchestra is realizing that they really need to stop playing the comparison game with each other and they really need to focus on, you know, what works in whatever city they're in. And that might mean that the, the job description for a musician depending on the orchestra might be a little different.

All right. So at the risk of playing the comparison game, I'm curious because you have been a conductor and a music director in other places. You've been a guest conductor in lots of places. When you look at Phoenix as a classical music city, how do we compare to other places that you've been?

MUÑOZ: That's a great question. I have to be careful how I answer this question. It's a challenging place. I'll be very frank with you. It's a very challenging place. We are the fifth largest city in the country but we nowhere near have the fifth largest support for arts in the country.

I mean, if you, if you compare cities like Houston and Chicago, which are comparable in population, they have, you know, organizations that are multiple times the budgets than we have. Part of it is that we're a new city, we're a very new city. We're a bit, a little bit of a transient city, a lot of transplants. A lot of people who are, you know, snowbirds who come here who have maybe their, their loyalties in other places and don't see Phoenix as kind of Phoenix Symphony or the Arizona, Ballet Arizona or whatever as their kind of primary home.

It's not their home home necessarily. I get that, I mean, and, and there are other cities that have similar, like Miami, for example, has a sort of a similar issue that, that's sort of sort of similar issue. So that's really challenging.

"It's a very challenging place. We are the fifth largest city in the country but we nowhere near have the fifth largest support for arts in the country. " — Tito Muñoz

There's certain things that, you know, you, you would, you know, certain artists that you could program in, in some other cities that would, that would definitely draw audiences, you know, would be a draw, that here, nobody really knows, you know, and, and, or that don't have quite the same draw. That being said, one thing that's been very, very fun about the Phoenix audience is that we do get a lot of new people coming to our concerts, people who are, you know, looking for a date night or all sorts of things, you know, that don't know, classical music very well.

And so sometimes that's a great problem to have because then you have a blank canvas to kind of, you know, create a tradition with or, you know, there have been times when they've programmed new works on concerts that had a Beethoven "Fifth" or a, or a Tchaikovsky's "5" or whatever. And I would program new works, bring a, bring a composer in to talk about their piece, and the audience loves it because it's something different, something new. They have a composer right there talking about their work and all of a sudden there's like a new appreciation for the idea of what contemporary music is.

So it's been a kind of interesting thing for me to see because I, you know, certainly when I go to Europe, especially Germany, that's, it's a little bit more ingrained in the culture. So, you know, people know the, the rituals, they know sort of how the concert's supposed to go, they know the music very well. And here, maybe not quite as much. I mean, we have some diehards that really do come that know music, know classical music, they appreciate it very much. But yeah, it's, it's a, it's a challenging place as I'm sure a lot of folks in, in, in our industry, in this community and the arts have have experienced.

Munoz talked about the Phoenix Symphony audience being somewhat of a blank canvas on which to create new traditions. So I asked him if some of that plays into some of the new kinds of things he's trying to do, like performing film scores or the music of pop and rock bands or artists of other genres or reverb the annual contemporary music festival he mentioned and whether that's a way to maybe catch Phoenix up to some extent or build up the audience to get it to a place where the audience base and donor base are expanded.

MUÑOZ: You would hope so and you would think, but actually we, we, we actually know that that's not the case. We actually know that that doesn't work. There, there's been studies that have been done in our industry. We, and we know very well that sort of, I think pops when pops was first created as like a light classics. I think the intention was to, to expand the audience and use that as kind of a gateway to or a bridge to have people connect with the, with the organization and then come to other concerts. But we, we've kind of learned that, that, that just the pops thing kind of created its own animal. And so now we have pops as a separate genre.

Now, orchestras like ours do 50/50 because that's just what it is. And so generally speaking, there's not a lot of crossover. People who come to see Harry Potter will come to see Harry Potter and that's kind of what they'll come to see and they don't, won't necessarily come for a regular classic classical show.

Well, it's interesting when you talk about contemporary music and you believing that there's an an audience for that here. Do you think that part of that is because as you said earlier, like a lot of people who live here maybe, it's kind of more of a blank canvas in terms of classical music. So, maybe people don't go in thinking, oh, I've got to hear Beethoven's "Ninth." I've got to hear Rachmaninoff. I've got to hear the "Nutcracker." Like this other thing that maybe I've never heard of before from a composer that I've never heard of before. This also is classical music and like, it's interesting.

MUÑOZ: Yeah, I mean, ultimately, I think ultimately it's, it's for me, I, I think it's about the experience itself and how that's marketed.

The experience of the performance?

MUÑOZ: The experience of the concert, the actual concert hall experience. I think that's what it is. I think everybody, you know, in, in this country kind of has a pretty good, even if they've never been to a concert of, of orchestra concert. I think they all have a pretty good idea of how it goes, and that could be good or bad. I mean, depending on what people are looking for in a concert experience. If they're used to going to rock concerts, then no classical music concert is not. And I get it, you know, it's fine and, you know, and, and, and every kind of genre has their own traditions and their own way of presenting the music, fair enough.

I, I do think that that leaves us room to work on that and work on how we present it, work on how we market it as an example, you know, when you go to a museum, there are some people that go to an art museum once a year. There's some people that are regulars at art museums that just like to go because they appreciate it and they want to go see it and they want to go do it. Some people go specifically for an exhibit, a specific exhibit that's happening and they want to go see it, whether it's like a fashion exhibit or like, you know, artifacts of the Third Reich, which is going to be very, very, very, you know, dismal and whatever. But if you're going to something like that, you know what you're getting yourself into. We don't really do that with classical music concerts.

We people say, oh, I'm going to the symphony. But if we're doing Beethoven's "Ninth," it's very different than doing like Shostakovich's Babi Yar symphony, which is about the Ukrainian massacre at Babi Yar. I mean, like, and we kind of treat it all the same, we kind of present it all the same. We kind of like, and they're so different and, and I mean, I remember doing a concert with Corigliano's first symphony, John Corigliano, his "Symphony No. 1", which was sort of dubbed the AIDS symphony, he wrote it in the '80s, and it was his response to the AIDS pandemic. All of his friends who were dying of AIDS, and I don't think anybody came to that concert in the, in the audience knowing what that symphony was about. I'm sure they didn't. And, and, you know, I made a point to talk about it at the beginning and explain and what aspects of the work were kind of reminiscent of his friends and what to listen for and what each movement and what each thing happened there.

It's, it's a really incredible piece because it's a, it's a very, it's very spiritual and it's very ghostly and, and it's very powerful. And, you know, and, and the mail that I received afterwards was so like, polarizing, you know, there are some people that were like my God, finally, Phoenix is not the, the, the, the wild west town that I thought it once was. It's, you know, that people like me can feel like they're accepted and, and we're presenting something like that, which really deals with things that we've experienced and they're very relevant to our times.

And, you know, there was some of the, you know, veiled homophobic responses that I've got as well, you know, very, you know, sort of conservative-minded people that don't like dissonant music, but also that don't like, you know, a, a quote-unquote political agenda in the music, even though it's, I, I don't think it is, but are OK with something like, Beethoven's "Eroica" where he talks about Napoleon and it's, I mean, I mean, almost everywhere in classical music, there's all of these experiences. So that being said, I think, you know, it's about the experience of the, of the actual concert hall performance and doing these reverb concerts which are a little bit more, maybe interactive, a little bit more intimate, they're in other different kinds of venues. The piece of themselves sometimes are, are a little bit more intimate and interactive.

But I also think reminding folks about the relevance of, of the music to the time. And so, you know, when you're doing even an old work, the old work can still actually speak to what you're, what you're experiencing nowadays, just like a new work is doing the same.

So when you think back about your time as music director and conductor of the Phoenix Symphony, what are you most proud of?

MUÑOZ: Well, a few things, I think the orchestra and, and I, I, I'm always a little bit wary to say this, but I, I think I do think that the orchestras is at a much higher artistic level than it was when I started. I think the orchestra is able to do things that it wasn't able to do when I started. It sounds better than when I started.

And that I think has to do with a few things. One is you know, the willingness of the players to go with me to go with where I wanted to take them. I think there was an evolution of personnel, you know, people, retired people left and, and, you know, that's just how it is. Sometimes it's, it's, that, you know, when you get fresh, new, new, new folks and, and generally speaking, you know, the, the each generation gets better and better and better, that's just how it, how things go. And so we have a lot of new faces, especially after COVID, a lot of new faces in the orchestra that have really elevated the level.

I think the, the types of programming have helped. So that we're, we're, you know, because it's, it's very easy to, especially in the pops genre. It's very, it's very hard sometimes to know which pop shows that we hire, hire are going to have like good charts, are going to have good music, you know, and, and sometimes, you know, you can be a backup band for Beatles cover band and the, and the actual charts for the orchestra are really not very boring or that sort of thing. And so we, we've made it a point to try to make sure that we're booking acts that have good, you know, solid music for the orchestra to play so that they're not just kind of wasting a week artistically.

I'm very proud of all of the new music that I've been able to do and all the composers that I've been able to introduce to the Phoenix audiences and, and with all of that in mind, all of these guest artists, whether it's soloists like the great soloists. And we had, we had Gil Shaham last year, we had, you know, Sarah Chang and Midori and all these people. And some people who've come back a second time have all said, you know, have all said that, that they, they, they can hear a difference, you know, every time they come back they can hear that the orchestra is improving and getting better and better and better and same with the composer. So that's been really great.

And then of course, Reverb, I think Reverb is sort of came out of COVID, but I think ended up being something that I think will continue with the orchestra. It seems like that's, that's something the orchestra wants to keep in their programming.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.