Tito Muñoz takes the podium for 8/2 concert

Aspen Times

He has only just turned 23, but Tito Muñoz, third-year conducting fellow with the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen, has already won a post as assistant conductor at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and made his mark at the Aspen Music Festival and School.

Last year, he won the AMFS's Robert J. Harth Conductor Prize, and this Wednesday he leads the 6pm August 2 Benedict Music Tent concert, conducting the Aspen Concert Orchestra through Beethoven's Symphony No. 8. Soon after, he will be leaving with AMFS Music Director David Zinman and AMFS Assistant Conductor Sean Newhouse for the Blossom Festival, summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra. There, he will share a podium with Zinman and Newhouse leading one of the United States's finest orchestras.

Born and raised in Queens, New York, Muñoz got his start in the classical music world playing the violin when he was attending the Louis Armstrong Middle School.

"It was something to do," he says. "The orchestra teacher was recruiting people, and so I signed up."

By age 13 he was taking his musical interests seriously, and he was accepted into the Juilliard School's Music Advancement Program. That gave him his start.

"There's no clear path," he says. "You take whatever's presented, and it could go a million differentways. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time, and mainly I worry about my job now."

While attending the Manhattan School of Music in the precollege division he got into conducting, taking his first lessons.

It was 1998 that he recalls first picking up a conducting baton in front of a group, when he assembled faculty and counselors at the Elizabeth Morrow String Festival in New Jersey (where he was teaching violin) for an impromptu performance of one of Bach's Brandenburg concertos.

Then, when he was 16 and invited to teach at the French Woods Performing Arts Festival, he began conducting fully staged Broadway musicals, as well as the orchestra and chamber music groups.

Getting early experience leading singers and players alike, with the lighting and staging factoring into the presentation, was good grounding, he says.

Since then, he has not only studied in the AACA program with Zinman and AACA's associate director and program coordinator Murry Sidlin, but he has also made a major debut-conducting Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid-with Leonard Slatkin's National Symphony Orchestra as a participant in the National Conducting Institute.

Muñoz describes working with Zinman and Sidlin as "huge." Until he came to the AMFS in 2004, he had not yet fully concentrated on conducting.

"I really liked the way [conducting] felt," he says. "It appeals to me. I've always loved orchestra music, since I went to a performing arts high school and had a lot of opportunities to play in the orchestra. It appealed to me to find another way to perform-not only by playing a part, but taking responsibility for the whole thing."

So far, Muñoz has had varied musical experiences. He has been a freelance violinist in New York, playing in the pit in Broadway shows such as The Producers, Nine, and Into the Woods.

He has also been the apprentice conductor of the New York Youth Symphony, and attended the Kinhaven and Apple Hill festivals.

And after his precollege work at Manhattan School of Music, he began undergraduate studies in violin performance with Daniel Phillips at Queens College. Muñoz now names Phillips as one of his great mentors.

But Aspen has been a highlight of Muñoz's past few years, he says, as he's been able to develop his technique with the AACA orchestra and study with Zinman.

His first year in Aspen, he was even able to meet John Williams, composer of the scores for the Star Wars and Jurassic Park series-"I made sure I talked with him-everyone grows up listening to Star Wars," Muñoz says.

And then there are the famous Aspen views.

"The area, the scenery in Aspen, is so different from New York," he adds. "And then musically speaking, it's at such a high level, and it's nice to be here, and to work at that high level, too."