The 24-student Desert Vista High School Chamber Orchestra got an early Halloween treat last week when Phoenix Symphony Music Director Tito Munoz directed one of its class rehearsals.
Munoz wanted to come after he heard that the orchestra is one of only six high school string orchestras invited to play in December at the prestigious 70th annual Midwest Clinic International Band and Orchestra Conference in Chicago. The event will attract some 17,000 attendees, including band and orchestra directors from all 50 states and at least 40 nations.
Munoz was especially excited that one of the selections the orchestra will perform is a modern reworking of composer Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” which Munoz premiered in his native New York City several years ago.
As Darlene Wedington-Clark, the school’s director of orchestras and guitar ensembles, initially directed the ensemble through the early part of Max Richter’s “Winter,” Munoz stood on the sidelines, his eyes closed as he intently listened to the music.
“Beautiful. Awesome,” he said as he took over from Wedington-Clark and addressed some of the violinists, telling them to keep one hand on the upper half of the instrument’s neck.
He interrupted their playing several times, urging them to go “faster, faster,” be “really, really picking at the strings,” “dig at the strings” or “be more aggressive” to put more energy into their playing.
“Make sure the upper strings don’t lose energy,” he told them.
Periodically closing his eyes as his hands fluttered directions, Munoz gently instructed the students to make more short strokes.
“This is rock music,” he joked as he kept reminding them to pluck and pinch the strings to bring the piece alive. “Make sure you have some of that rock feel.”
Munoz congratulated them at the end of the piece for following his instructions, moving to a slower number as he told them, “I’m being really picky about all these little things” so that they would achieve a performance as close to perfection as possible.
In his third season as the Phoenix Symphony’s music director, Munoz has been winning widespread recognition as a gifted and versatile conductor.
He was music director of the Opéra National de Lorraine and the Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy in France, and has been assistant conductor of both the Cleveland and Cincinnati symphony orchestras.
Munoz has a special fondness for high school musicians, and said he likes to visit with school ensembles as much as he can.
The New York City native graduated from the New York City High School for the Performing Arts, which was made famous by the 1980 movie “Fame.”
Munoz and Wedington-Clark agreed that the students’ participation in the orchestra helped them develop more than just talent.
“Kids who are in music are always better off for it,” Munoz said. “There’s a connection with the music that’s not like anything else. Whether or not you go to play professionally, you still take with you empathy, leadership, a connection with the arts as a connection with human emotion. Because that’s what art is: an abstract connection with emotion.”
Munoz also stressed the sacrifice that the students were making for the sake of art.
“They’re in it not because their parents want them to be in it,” he said. “They’re taking a lot of heat for it. It’s not the most popular thing to do.
“Coming to this room is solace to them. This is something nobody else has. This is special. They’re thinking, ‘We have this connection together than nobody else has.’”
Added Wedington-Clark: “It’s something about the music, the fine arts. They feel a connection, the same passion. They know that how we feel about the music is how we feel about them.”
The 7:15 a.m. class is considered a “zero-hour class” because the students have no other room for it in their packed daily schedules.
“My students are in every club and activity they can join. They take all AP (Advanced Placement) classes, have dual enrollment with Rio Salado College,” Wedington-Clark said.
And while she requires they practice a minimum four hours a week, the students end up playing a lot more in private lessons and in off-campus symphonies and other ensembles.
Wedington-Clark said she wants the group “extremely focused” when they perform.
“I want them to play so that after their last note, no one applauds. People just hold their breath and don’t know what to do,” she said.
Munoz thought the group was well on its way to achieving that level.
As for the students, they were thrilled and grateful that he took the time to visit with them.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said principal viola player Ryan Griesler.
Added concertmaster BoBae Johnson: “This was awesome.”