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Christian Reif: Moving Up

June 7, 2019

For the past three years, 30-year-old Christian Reif has been the resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and the Wattis Foundation Music Director of the SFS Youth Orchestra. 

Also touring and guest conducting internationally, he has been garnering accolades for his technical expertise and inspired interpretations.

Now in his final season with the SFS, he will be embarking on a 17-day, multicity European tour with the Youth Orchestra beginning on June 23, with a “Bon Voyage” concert, featuring the tour repertoire: Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and Detlev Glanert’s Prelude No. 1, from Three American Preludes, on June 16 at Davies Symphony Hall.

Born and raised in Germany, he studied piano and conducting at the Mozarteum Salzburg, then came to the U.S. to study at Juilliard, followed by a two-year conducting fellowship under Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) with the New World Symphony in Miami. While at Julliard, Reif met acclaimed soprano soloist Julia Bullock, and they got married.

I spoke to Reif recently by telephone about his career to date and his plans for the future.

Why did you choose to come to the U.S. to study conducting?

The main reason was because all the good schools here offer a lab orchestra — an orchestra just for the conducting student. The European schools do offer lab orchestra experiences, but not as regularly as the American schools.

At Juilliard we had weekly lessons with the orchestra and there were only four people in the class, so we got a lot of attention and hands on experience, and that was crucial. I am very fortunate and happy that I was accepted at Juilliard and studied there.

How did your position with the New World Symphony and MTT come about?  

I applied for a conducting scholarship and Michael invited me down to Miami to conduct a week with him. That whole week was my audition; I had three concerts and conducted the first piece on the program. We immediately connected and he was instrumental in my development. He has been an incredible mentor and very supportive — I’m very, very lucky.

You are the musical director of the SFS Youth Orchestra and resident conductor for the SFS.  What do these positions entail?

Being the resident conductor for the San Francisco Symphony means that I am assisting the music director in all kinds of projects — conducting all the education programs and the family concerts with the Symphony. We serve thousands of kids in the Bay Area and they all come to Davies Symphony Hall. We perform for them and I curate those programs.

And when Michael is in town, I am covering him — I am the number two, so to speak. So if he were to get sick, I would jump in, which actually happened a few months ago in the second half of a program — I stepped in for Sibelius’s Second Symphony with just ten minutes’ notice. 

What was that experience like?

I remember it very clearly: It was crazy, and it was a real thrill. You get nervous, but at the same time the adrenalin is just pulsing through you. You have to be as prepared as you can be, so that you do a good performance and you don’t derail the orchestra.

It’s a difficult piece to conduct and play, and obviously, I can’t or don’t do everything that Michael does; I’m conducting the music the way I feel it. The crucial thing is to be absolutely clear and then the orchestra musicians will be with you.

So you have to be prepared but may never go on. Sounds difficult.

You touched on one of the reasons why now is a good time for me to move to the next phase of my career! But the nice thing about covering as the assistant conductor and being the understudy is that you learn this repertoire in a “safe environment” and develop a sense for the pieces and see and hear this incredible orchestra perform and rehearse with incredible conductors, especially Michael.

Talking to Michael about music has been illuminating: I have had access to answers to the many questions I posed, and that’s been wonderful.

Tell me about your experience working with the Youth Orchestra.

I love the youth orchestra; they are incredible. As the music director, I try to foster a creative environment for them to grow and enjoy music and to learn, not just musical ideas, but also life lessons.   It’s been such a joy to see many of these musicians I’ve known for three years grow — how they developed, how their personalities changed and how many of them got more confident and comfortable with themselves and with music.  

Programming the season, I always try to find a balance between pieces that I think they should absolutely experience now and pieces that they might not know or are a little bit out of the traditional canon to broaden their horizon a little bit. So every season I have programmed contemporary music — the music of our time, so they know that music is a part of our lives now, and not just as a reproduction of old music that was written 100 to 200 years ago.

What do you think it takes to be a good conductor? 

There are many layers. First and foremost, you have to have a good ear and you have to have an emotional connection to the music and an innate understanding of it — the harmony and melody and every detail of the technical aspects of how music is put together. 

But basically the main job of the conductor is to inspire both the orchestra members and the audience, and to make the orchestra sound better than they sounded in the beginning or to get the orchestra musicians to play better than they thought they could, and to create that experience for everyone involved — to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Are there any particular composers or time periods you especially like?

I love good music and you have that from every period of time. There are some composers that I just adore or have been part of my life the longest, whether it’s Haydn or Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner or Strauss and Mahler. And I absolutely love Shostakovich — he is fascinating, and it is incredible how he translates his live experiences into music. That has always been very touching and emotionally deep to me.

This is your first tour with the Youth Orchestra.  What are your expectations?

I believe we are going to have incredible experiences and wonderful musicmaking. It is going to be exciting to experience the flair, atmosphere, and culture of these cities, and meaningful to perform in these historical halls. Most of the youth orchestra musicians have never been to Europe. It’s going to be a highlight and an experience every one of us will treasure forever.

What are your plans after the summer tour?

Julia and I are moving to Munich at the end of the summer and making that our base. We are bicoastal right now — she still has a place in New York, so the big difference is that we are actually going to have one place together. It is going to be a wonderful new chapter for us.

My managers are putting together a wonderful season and I am guest conducting a lot, which I am really looking forward to. I think, in time, there will be ensembles that I would like to work with more regularly. I would love to have a home orchestra, and work with them in depth, and I would also love to do more opera.

Lily O'Brien is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for the performing arts. She has written feature articles and previews for a variety of publications including Downbeat, JazzTimes, Marin Arts & Culture, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Marin Independent Journal, and Strings magazine. She is a singer who has performed professionally in a variety of genres, and an avid world traveler and bicyclist.

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