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Tito Muñoz talks conducting concerti - The EC Interview

Tito Muñoz is the Music Director of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and has been a dear friend of mine for over a decade. I sat down with him (virtually) to speak to him about working with soloists and best practices of conducting concerti. Here is a slightly edited transcript of our chat!

Ankush Kumar Bahl: Hey Tito, thanks for doing this! Lovely to see you on the Zoom…

Tito Muñoz: Good to see you too man and happy to be here today.

Ankush: So I guess I'd like to start off by asking: what qualities do soloists, who you most enjoy working with, have? What do they bring to the table that you find most helpful when you first meet them and have a week with them? Is it always their musicianship? Are the technically brilliant? What does that whole package look like for you?

Tito: Well, I mean, I think that like you mentioned, there are very obvious things you look for... people who are very musical and people who are very good at what they do, of course. But the soloists that I think that I have the best time with, are the ones that (and this usually only comes with a lot of experience), but they're the ones that really know, really understand the interaction that's supposed to take place with a conductor, with an orchestra… also it's different for every piece. That's the thing that's really interesting. It really is different, depending on the repertory, depending on the piece. Because with a romantic standard work, there's a lot of give and take, a lot of push and pull, a lot of real music making that happens between everybody! With a contemporary work, it's a little bit more black and white - there are technical issues, there are musical logistics -things you have to do with your with your hands and all sorts of things, I think you want a soloist that really understands how all that is supposed to work, because then the music making is the best - when everyone has a feeling of how things work.

I have also found that sometimes there are soloists who get used to accommodating too much - and that can be a little frustrating. Of course, there are soloists who do the opposite and don't accommodate it at all, and that can also be frustrating. You could be a great musician, but if you don't know how that interaction is supposed to be - with an orchestra and a conductor, then it can sort of stifle any kind of music making and musicianship that you would want to have.

So I think that's really, really important - that ideally you have a soloist who really understands that idea of collaboration and communication.

Ankush: Do you have any advice for young soloist starting out? You talked about being too accommodating or not accommodating enough... but for a young soloist who is just starting out in their career... any advice for them?

Tito: Yeah, so for young soloists, what I think is the most important thing for them, is to know the wide range of ability and musicianship of conductors and orchestras. You know? It's going to be (maybe) startling for a very young soloist who's starting out and doesn't have a lot of experience to go to one conductor who's very good and knows how to follow, who really knows how to do it, and then you might go to somebody else who doesn’t. That understanding, that very, very delicate balance of how to either accommodate or make suggestions or make recommendations… How do you deal with that? How do you avoid stepping over a line?

It's really, really tricky because you know you can easily offend - I mean that's everybody! We go through that as conductors with an orchestra, but I think as the soloist it's really, really important to know this before you enter a new situation.

One soloist who is a master at this exact thing is Yo-Yo Ma. He can somehow make any situation work, no matter who is on the podium, no matter what the orchestra it is, he knows how to still make the best music within the context of that situation. So if he knows it's a conductor he's just going to have to follow, because the conductor doesn't know how to follow him, he's just going to do that and he will make the make the best out of that. And vice versa! If there is a conductor that he actually can collaborate with, he'll be able to do that.

I think that's kind of the best, unfortunately, way that a soloist has to think of themselves - they have to really fit into whatever the situation is, to just make the best experience possible for everybody.

Ankush: So what about when you don't get that balance and someone is inexperienced or just not able to understand and empathize with the orchestra or you as the conductor? What do you do then?

Tito: It's tricky... I mean it's also going to be based on the conductor's ability. Every conductor is a little bit different, but I think you want to always salvage the situation as best as possible. You want to always be as accommodating as you can, and you deal with the personalities and you make it work. Now, will there be a situation where the soloist is either way too inexperienced for the piece? and how does that inexperience manifest itself? Does it manifest itself in defensive behavior? Or an aggressive behavior? Sometimes it does happen, because people might feel insecure and they don't want to look bad. So you have to figure that out for yourself, psychologically, how to deal with somebody like that.

You know, one of the things that we both have learned from covering the great soloists and conductors is that there is often a lot more dialogue then sometimes we would think. We have both seen where the soloist might actually say to the conductor, “you tell me how you want this” or “I don't really know how to do this, can you teach me how to do this?" - that does happen.

As a conductor, you also have to be humble enough to know when you don't know something. So yeah, it's just that it's a balance. Unfortunately, some situations might be unsalvageable because you don't have enough time - enough time to dig into the psychology of the person and try to get them to a place where you both can listen to each other. So I think that's really one of the key things - to try to be as open minded as possible.

Once you figure out what you've got (not only musically, but psychologically as well) from the person who you are collaborating with, you have to kind of pick and choose your battles and be okay with that. This is of course because in the end, regardless of what you might feel, you still have to put on a concert and it still has to be as successful as possible. So you kind of put the ego away and make the best experience you can.

Ankush: Yeah, we've all had to do that - picking your battles for sure - but also making them look good, ultimately!

Tito: Ultimately that’s right. You want to support them and you want to make sure that they are able to play as best as they can.

Ankush: We kind of mentioned this a little bit, but do you have any do's and don'ts or nuts and bolts for a soloist meeting? Maybe there is a conductor out there who has never had a soloist meeting before, and now they are conducting a subscription with an orchestra and have a soloist meeting scheduled. What do they do with that time? What should or should not happen in this meeting?

Tito: Well, it really just depends on everything - I mean everything!

If you play the piano, your best use of time is to actually just accompany the soloist through the piece on the piano because then you've learned the soloist's way of playing the piece and you can just feel it inside.

I actually don’t always have those meetings, especially on standard rep, but when I do have those meetings, for example, in a contemporary piece, then often the meetings are literally just logistics. You know, I’m in five here, do you want me to cue you there, I’ll follow you there, you have to follow us here, etc..

It's all just logistics because that's usually what contemporary music requires because there are many times when the soloist really does have to just be locked into the conductor and it’s not that the conductor is following the soloist.

Another thing - if you're a young conductor who is working with a seasoned soloist for the very first time…

(Long pause)

Good luck.

You know, you hope that it is a supportive person and they’ll know that you are a baby and doing this for the first time. They’ll probably be kind - I mean, they usually are.. but if not, there will be a tension because you are inexperienced and that is okay, when we are young, we make a lot of mistakes.

So if it is a soloist I've never met and it's a piece I don't know, I will have them play through certain parts of it where I just need to know some information… but you're really not going to know what you need until you actually have done the piece. That's the thing - it just takes a lot of experience.

That’s the best thing I can say, that you're going to make a lot of mistakes and that's okay. Just learn fast, think quick, and make sure that you’re not thinking that you follow the soloist and the soloist follows you. If you do that, you will always be behind.

Instead, you have to know that the orchestra is following the soloist with you. So, everything that you do gesturally has to really be focused in on the soloist. What you do physically as a conductor is just magnifying what the soloist is doing for the orchestra. This means that you have to anticipate a lot and you have to always be on top of things. I am always staring at the soloist - I hardly ever look at the music when I'm doing a concerto because I want to be just that connected with that person and embody their music.

Ankush: Yeah exactly, you can’t be thinking about anything else but what the soloist is doing and automatically be able to show that... really telegraph that ahead of time to the orchestra so everything is really together, musically and otherwise.

Tito: Well, a lot of young conductors don't realize this. Either because they haven't had the experience of playing high level chamber music, or didn’t play in an orchestra, or they simply just get blinded by the inexperience physically. Of course when you're starting out as a conductor and you haven't had a lot of experience, you're still worried about your physicality. You’re still thinking about what do I have to do in order to make things happen. When really, the orchestra is just sitting there, listening to the soloist and can accompany them just fine! There may be things that you're worried about that they can just do without you even having to worry about it!

I think that takes experience: knowing what that is, what that feels like, and to know that there is already so much of a connection musically between the players of the orchestra and the soloist. Sometimes you only have to know when to ride that, when to work with that, and when to allow that to just happen. Never thinking ‘I have to beat time to make sure that the orchestra is with me, so that they are with the soloist,’ that’s not how it works.

Ankush: Yes. It takes time, but eventually you will get to a point where your ears control your hands and you don't think about your hands ever. You’re just listening and your hands do what's necessary to make it work.

Finally, I would love to wrap this up with a little bit of a lightning round. Some more tricks of the trade or quick hit advice that you would like to share?

Tito: Yes of course there are a couple of things that we wanted to chat about that we can go through quickly…

One, I don’t usually use a pianist for rehearsals. While there are many conductors who use pianists in soloist meetings, I feel like that just adds an unnecessary third person or third variable to the relationship.

Ankush: That is great advice. I have seen it both ways, but your reasoning makes total sense! What about playing through a whole piece?

Tito: Of course there are pieces where I will ask the soloist to play the whole piece. A world premiere for example, so we are exactly on the same page. So I make sure we have enough time and that there are no surprises. But if it is a standard work, the more experienced you get, the more you will realize that there are usually just 2 or 3 spots where you need to hear, say, how they come out of a cadenza, and that is really it! A red flag for some soloists is when the conductor asks how fast or slow a standard movement is… it should be like chamber music where you just play and listen, you know? Somebody gives a breath and you just know exactly how fast it should go, that should be enough!

Ankush: I will never ask for the tempi in a meeting like that again! ;) Any advice on studying a concerto?

Tito: It often really takes knowing their solo part backwards and forwards, knowing their part by heart. So you're not reading it on the podium. Instead, you have to know it so well that you can just turn away from the music and even turn away from the orchestra. So essentially, you’re kind of ignoring the orchestra and you're really just focused on the soloist. Ideally, every gesture you give is just kind of a reinforcement of the soloist’s music making. This way, the orchestra can just easily read the soloist and easily play off of the soloist.

That's the most comfortable for the soloist as well! When they feel like they don't have to look at you, they feel like they don't have to wait for you, they know that you're always there… and in those moments, they can just kind of close their eyes and do their thing. That is the best.

Ankush: What about other interactions with soloists? Even off the podium - like backstage or socially. Any advice on those relationships?

Tito: You know… they are colleagues, so you treat them as a colleague and be respectful whether you know them or not. Then sometimes you work with your friends and that's great! There are many times where I work with people that I'm very close with and it's just great. Know that you’ll also make friends, I mean sometimes you work with a soloist that you just connect with and that is great because you make a new friend. Somebody that you trust, and someone that you know will enjoy working with you, and vice versa. You take that with you for the rest of your career! I have many soloists that are lifelong friends and I'll always work with them as frequently as I possibly can because we both enjoy it so much.

And then as you know, sometimes you'll work with venerated artists that you have to show a lot of respect to. In those cases, just be as professional as always, and I think the relationship will kind of reveal itself... and you will know what to do.

Ankush: Last one, since we both have been assistant conductors… What do you think is our best practices for being in the hall and helping a soloist out with balances, etc?

Tito: That’s a good question. Just like it depends on the guest conductor, it really depends on the soloist. I mean there are some soloists that don't want to know anything! But that's usually very rare because the soloist usually wants to know that they're not being covered but let's see… where do I begin with this?

First of all, you want to make sure you introduce yourself very respectfully. Say, “I'll be out in the hall, if you need anything.”

That's always how you say it. “if you need anything, I'll be out there.” So you don't overstep, just let them know you’ll be a resource there. Similar to how you would do with a guest conductor: “If you need me, I'll be listening.”

So I think with a soloist, you want to make sure that you present yourself as a person that is tactful, is thoughtful, and trustworthy… that's the most important thing. They want to know that you know what's going on and they want to know that you're not gonna bother them with minutia, but that you are looking out for them and are trustworthy.

You also have to be careful about overstepping, but if you have proven yourself as an ally, you gain the ability to say a little more in order to help. However, if you don’t build a rapport with the conductor or the soloist, you never offer a note unless it's absolutely crucial. Unless it's so bad that you need to say something! Just be respectful and have no ego whatsoever. Like, if you're saying something because you want to prove yourself, don't say it. If you're saying something because you want to look smart or clever, don't say it. The moment you have any kind of ulterior motive in your mind for opening your mouth, just keep your mouth shut.

Ankush: Well, that is great advice and a great place to end my friend! Thank you so much for doing this and looking forward to talking more off mic. Thanks for all of your help with this article/interview and we look forward to having you join us at EverythingConducting for something else soon!


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