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Young conductor shows his skills

Tito Muñoz
Cincinnati Enquirer

Remember this name: Tito Muñoz. The talented New York-born conductor is one of the recent stars to join the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's conducting staff. From the appealing program the assistant maestro delivered in his subscription concert debut Saturday night, you'd never guess he's just 23 years old.

On a month's notice, Muñoz stepped in for conductor/composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who is recovering from surgery, with a program of his own: Mozart's Overture to "Don Giovanni," Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite. Coming just two days after superstar Valery Gergiev's white-hot performances, which also included a Stravinsky ballet score, it might have been a tough act to follow. But Muñoz was well prepared, and the musicians delivered their own verdict at the end, applauding him and refusing to stand as the conductor took a bow by himself.

The evening's soloist, Korean violinist Chee-Yun, also provided a rewarding performance of Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor.

One's first impression of Muñoz is of his natural facility and convincing musicianship on the podium. A former student of David Zinman and Murry Sidlin at the Aspen Music Festival, Muñoz has already made impressive debuts with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, and the Cleveland Orchestra at the Blossom Music Festival.

In the Overture to Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni," he wonderfully brought out all the darkness and dissonance of the opening bars. Dukas' orchestral showpiece, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," was atmospheric and detailed, helped along with superb playing by the orchestra's musicians.

The young conductor tackled Stravinsky's difficult Suite of 1919 from his ballet, "The Firebird" from memory. Leading with fluid motions, he inspired precise, atmospheric playing, and every gesture made musical sense. Tempos were on the relaxed side, which gave the "Firebird" variations a wonderful sheen and sweep. The "Round of the Princesses" was spellbinding.

Muñoz's leadership was sometimes a bit too careful, for instance, in the "Infernal Dance," where that extra surge of spontaneity and savagery were missing. But the finale was luminous. Clearly, this is a major talent in the making.

For the program's centerpiece, the Bruch Violin Concerto, one of the chestnuts in the violin literature, complemented well. Chee-Yun, who has been performing on the concert circuit for about 14 years - her debut album came out in 1993 - has grown into a mature artist who is elegant and communicative.

She approached Bruch's lyrical phrases with romantic slides and a big, luscious tone. Her playing was spectacularly precise as she performed technical virtuosities with ease, yet it was also refreshingly unexaggerated.

The finale sparkled. Muñoz never took his eyes off the soloist, and it was a top-notch collaboration.