How the Phoenix Symphony music director champions a broader sound by embracing diversity

How the Phoenix Symphony music director champions a broader sound by embracing diversity

Music Director Tito Muñoz conducts the Phoenix Symphony at Symphony Hall on Oct. 16, 2022.

He has performed on stages the world over, but Phoenix Symphony Music Director Tito Muñoz’s hometown of Queens, New York, remains his inspiration.

Queens is “extremely diverse. English is not the common language. There is no common language. You get on the subway and everybody’s speaking everything, and it’s great,” Muñoz said in an interview with The Arizona Republic.

In his ninth season with the symphony, the appreciation the 39-year-old maestro of Ecuadorian descent has for the Queens-like blend of cultures has helped him enrich the Phoenix audience’s musical palate.

“For me, diversity is always a thing I like to think about as sort of necessary to enhance the vibrancy of an organization. Even in symphony orchestra,” Muñoz said. “We’ll be able to play more music better. We’ll be able to connect with the community better. We’ll be able to educate the people better.”

According to data published in a September 2016 report by the League of American Orchestras, Latinos make up 8.3% of conductors for U.S. orchestras with large annual budgets.

The lack of diversity among orchestra members is not lost on Muñoz, so opening doors to more people of color is essential to his position. The music director is a part of Sphinx, a social justice organization committed to broadening access to classical music for Black and Latino performers, and works to ensure the Phoenix Symphony features compositions by creators of color.

Exposing Phoenix to a wider range of artists

The Phoenix Symphony is a 76-year-old cultural institution in the Valley. Under Muñoz’s leadership, it has performed compositions from a wider range of artists, including those of color.

This spring, the symphony played Mexican composer Juan Pablo Contreras’ mariachi-inspired piece, “Mariachitlánin.” Muñoz described Contreras’ composition as regionally relevant to Arizona, where 32.3% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

And Black composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, whose classical music has hip-hop influences, has won over the symphony’s audience, Muñoz said.

“We are doing this because it’s great music. Here’s somebody part of our community, part of our landscape of America and it fits with the program,” Muñoz said. “That’s reflective of values rather than ticking a box.”

Some of these composers are brought onstage and introduced before their composition is performed, allowing audiences to understand the artist better, and in turn, be more appreciative of their music, Muñoz explained.

“Breaking that barrier by introducing a person and getting to know the person who actually wrote it, really makes a big difference,” Muñoz said. Audiences are “definitely more open-minded when they hear the piece.”

Muñoz, with the violin as his instrument of training, rooted his musical education at New York City’s famed LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts with supplementary classes at The Julliard School.

He made his professional debut as a conductor in 2006 with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Muñoz has performed with orchestras across the country, as well as conducted in London and throughout Germany and France.

He performed with the Phoenix Symphony twice before taking the helm as music director in 2014.

As conductor, Muñoz said he views himself as a stage director imparting a vision for a performance. The score, he said, is the script and the musicians are the actors whose roles he helps mold based on their level of experience.

All this, he explained, generates a harmonious sound from the orchestra.

“The only difference between a director and a conductor is a conductor is doing the directing in real-time,” he said. “All my gestures are more like encouragement reminding of what we did in rehearsals. It’s more than just keeping a beat.”

Classical musical: ‘Like food for the soul’

Though the pandemic brought a lull over the Phoenix Symphony in its 2020-2021 season, its current roster of 63 full-time members has been busy with several shows this season, which runs from Oct. 14 to May 13.

Some of the programs this year have sources outside the classical music genre.

Curated by Muñoz, this season has a slate of more than 20 programs featuring some guest conductors.

The weekend of Nov. 18-20 at Symphony Hall saw “Dancers, Dreamers and Presidents,” a composition inspired by then-Sen. Barack Obama famously grooving to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” during a 2007 appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

In late January at the Madison Center for the Arts, the symphony will put on “Totally ‘80s,” a concert featuring rock, R&B and new wave music hits from the decade.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Tito is one of the outstanding conductors of his generation,” said Phoenix Symphony Board of Directors Co-Chair Lon Babby. “He brings tremendous enthusiasm and energy to everything that he does.”

Babby, 71, is among the classical music faithful who, thanks to Muñoz’s efforts, have come to embrace composers from outside the genre orthodoxy.

Muñoz, Babby said, helps fulfill the Phoenix Symphony’s obligation as an arts organization to help the art form grow by giving young or new composers an opportunity to perform.

“He’s a master of what I would consider the repertoire of the music that I love and that I listen to and that I think attracts many in the audience,” Babby said, adding that Muñoz has “also educated us on where classical music may be headed.”

Regardless of what the orchestra plays, Muñoz consistently holds his musicians to a high standard, associate principal trumpet player Ben Nguyen said.

Playing for the Phoenix Symphony for the last 31 years, Nguyen, 61, thinks Muñoz has elevated the orchestra’s sound through his experience. Nguyen pointed to Muñoz’s time as assistant conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, regarded as one of the country’s leading orchestras, while the widely respected Pierre Boulez was its conductor.

“There’s a certain, very high standard that he’s used to,” Nguyen said and added that Muñoz coaches the musicians to “sound like a unit” to better perform a “well-polished product that is meaningful, that is intended by the composer.”

And for all the orchestra’s forays into contemporary melodies, Muñoz said the musicians perfect their skills by regularly playing the challengingly “elegant and nuanced” compositions of classical music greats like Mozart or Schubert.

Classical musical is “like food for the soul almost – like eating your vegetables. As a music director, you try to judiciously place those pieces in the season, so that you’re giving the orchestra what they need to kind of keep in shape and healthy,” Muñoz said.

Reach breaking news reporter Jose R. Gonzalez at or on Twitter @jrgzztx.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix Symphony director embraces diversity, champions broader sound