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Tito Muñoz. Photo: Roger Mastroianni Tito Muñoz. Photo: Roger Mastroianni

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American Musicians in UK Premiere

American conductor Tito Muñoz will conduct the World Premiere of US composer Michael Hersch’s newest work on February 14th with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. The Script of Storms sets the words of Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim in a cycle for voice and orchestra. We spoke to Tito and Michael as they prepared for the premiere.

Published on February 13, 2020

For our audience of American expats and Americanophile Brits, where in the United States are you both from?

Michael: I was born in Washington D.C., raised primarily in Virginia.

Tito: I am originally from New York City. I was born in Queens, and I still call that home.

Do you come from a musical family?

Michael: While most of my family is not particularly musical, my brother Jamie is an accomplished horn player.

Tito: When I began music, I had an older cousin who played the violin. He was my influence to also start the violin. I also have a younger cousin who is now a professional mezzo soprano.

What do you love about classical and modern music?

Michael: In the art which I seek out (and this includes music of any kind), like many people I am looking for something that brings into focus those things which seem can only be brought into focus by art. While I believe that this can happen with art of any time, there is something about art reacting to our shared moment which is unique, and I am drawn to art of our time in particular for that reason.

Tito: I love music in general because it can create very distinct feelings inside of us. It can remind us of things in the past, it can uplift us, it can heal our souls. It can also take us to places that we may not want to go. That’s an awesome power that a composer or songwriter has, as well as the performer who recreates the art for an audience. I love the idea that I can channel the thoughts of someone like Bach or Mozart, who have not lived for hundreds of years, and recreate these thoughts for myself and for others. Working with a living composer gives an even greater insight into the interpretation of a work, and that can be truly exhilarating. 

Tito and Michael, you have worked together and been friends for many years. When did you first meet?

Tito: We first met electronically. I was hired for a concert with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern which included Michael’s Piano Concerto along the ravines. We corresponded through email about his music. It wasn’t until I was also asked by a mutual friend, the violinist Miranda Cuckson, to lead the premiere of his monodrama On the Threshold of Winter that we finally met in person and started a very wonderful friendship and collaboration. It’s a privilege to work on Michael’s music because it’s music that I love and that I think is truly unique and genius. It’s the type of music that takes us to places we don’t want to go, but that sometimes we need to. It’s extraordinarily honest, and there aren’t many people writing this kind of music nowadays.

Michael: Tito has conducted several of my premieres since On the Threshold of Winter in 2014. I trust him completely. He is a remarkably gifted conductor.

Tito, yours is perhaps not a typical path into classical music – I believe you began your education in the New York City Public School System. What led you to work in classical music?

Tito: I’m not sure what a typical path to classical music would be, but I did begin to play the violin as part of the music program offered at my school when I was 11 years old. I took to the instrument very quickly and my school music teacher recommended me to a program offered by the Juilliard School called the Music Advancement Program. being at Juilliard helped solidify the violin and classical music as big parts of my life, whether I would have gone into it professionally or not. I also ended up going to a performing arts high school (specifically LaGuardia High School, which was made famous by the Broadway musical and film Fame), and having this exposure to high level performing arts education 7-days-a-week was what excited me about a life in music and made me want to pursue it in college/uni.

Tito, you have held posts with a number of major American orchestras, but this upcoming concert will mark your debut conducting the BBC Symphony. What are you looking forward to about this debut? And how does working with a British orchestra differ from an American orchestra?

Tito: I’m very excited for this debut, which will actually be my English/London debut. I know that British orchestras, and especially London orchestras, work very fast with minimal rehearsal time … which is actually very similar to how we work in the United States. So, aside from remembering the difference between crotchets and quavers (quarter-notes and eighth-notes in the US), I think the work itself will be pretty much the same.

Michael’s new work, the script of storms, sets the words of Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim in a cycle for voice and orchestra. What inspired you to write it? What was Karim like as a person?

Michael: I met Fawzi Karim after reading about him in a book by Marius Kociejowski. I was both moved and taken aback by much of his work’s power. It is difficult to forget lines such as:

I was born in a mellower year,
A year when people still paused at the smell of corpses.
Now I smell the roasting of a thigh ...
He pours on more kerosene
And the fire glows and the smell of flesh gets stronger.
... my father said, ‘Whoever goes sniffing out corpses would want to be rid of their stench.’
But it was a mellower year;
A year when people still paused.

Karim was a kind, thoughtful, and gentle figure. He was also a gifted painter. Through both his poetry and his painting Karim grappled with elements of the human experience which many, if not most, turn away from. His recent passing is a terrible loss.

What do you hope audiences will get from the new work?

Michael: While I do hope people take something away from the experience of hearing the music, I am especially excited that audience will encounter both the poetry of Fawzi Karim and have the opportunity to hear the soprano Ah Young Hong, two artists whom may not be familiar to the UK public.

Tito what are the challenges when conducting new music such as this, versus the more well known works of Mozart, Beethoven, etc.?

Tito: I think the biggest challenge is that the musical language can feel very different from what we know as “the classics.” New music is so varied and multi-faceted, and symphony orchestras usually don’t play a substantial amount of new music, so while the notes on the page may be the “same” notes that Beethoven or Mozart used, the way a composer uses them, and the intent behind them will be very different, and my job will be to help “translate” those difference in a way that the musicians can understand and hopefully appreciate. On the other hand, working on “the classics” can also pose a great challenge, because we know them so well. It can be difficult to get excited about playing yet another Beethoven’s 5th. But with new music, it’s always fresh, and the musicians will probably have never played it before.

You’ve both worked with many European and British musicians, do they have a different approach to Americans?

Tito: I don’t think so. Our world is so international, and with the way we communicate through media and the internet, we are able to acquaint ourselves with people and cultures from all over the world. I always feel very welcome and comfortable when I work with orchestras in other countries.

What do you like about Britain? And when you are working abroad, what do you miss about the United States?

Tito: I most definitely appreciate the history and beauty of the UK, and the fact that you can also have these wonderful, bustling cities like London as a contrast. The thing we don’t have in the US is the kind of history that Europe has, because we are such a young country. I think it’s really remarkable when you see a city like Phoenix, Arizona (where my orchestra is) because it’s very much a “planned” city. It was built with a grid system of streets, very much built for driving our big cars, and everything is new. You wouldn’t see anything like it in Europe. So it’s really awe inspiring to be in cities that are centuries old, and seeing architecture that still exists from those times. We don’t have anything like that in the US. And when I’m abroad, one thing that does stick out as being something I miss about the United States is laundry machines. I’m sorry to say that we just have much better and more efficient laundry machines, and it’s really hard to get used to how slow they are in Europe.

Is there one special item that you cannot travel abroad without?

Tito: Two things, actually... my laptop and my violin (I still practice!).

The concert is being recorded for a future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 - keep an eye on schedules for details. Click on the links to find out more about Tito Muñoz, Michael Hersch and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

>> MORE INTERVIEWS

>> MORE ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Michael Hersch. Photo: Sam Oberter Michael Hersch. Photo: Sam Oberter

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