written by Sason Bishope Parry
The Multiple talents of the SF Symphony’s Christian Reif…
German-born conductor Christian Reif is a man of multiple talents and prestigious undertakings, which include his second season as resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, as well as the music director of the San Francisco Youth Orchestra. Both jobs require great discipline, great responsibility, and talent with of course the passion to lead, which seem to come naturally. Reif made his debut in 2015 following two seasons as Conducting Fellow with the New World Symphony in Miami, serving also as cover conductor for music director Michael Tilson Thomas, who also mentored Reif. He has been noted for leading several orchestras and ensembles both in the U.S. and abroad including Lakes Area Music Festival Orchestra, The Julliard Orchestra, Salzburg Chamber Soloists, Georgian Chamber Orchestra and the Israel Chamber Orchestra. Beyond his many musical leadership roles, he is also a dedicated and enthusiastic educator, teaching piano, he has coaching instrumentalists and also works with singers as a repetiteur. In 2014, Reif completed his master of music in Conducting at The Julliard School under Alan Gilbert, after studying with Dennis Russell Davies at the Mozarteum Salzburg. For his outstanding achievements at The Julliard School Christian Reif is the recipient of the Charles Schiff Conducting Award. These accolades alone suggest a great resume for any classical musician, but considering Reif is still fairly young, he seems to be just getting started.
On April 26 through 29, Reif will be conducting the SF Symphony through concerts featuring Holst’s astrologically-inspired suite The Planets. For the 1920 premiere performance of The Planets by the London Symphony Orchestra, Holst provided this note: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets; there is no programme music, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same name. If any guide to the music is required the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it be used in the broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and also the more ceremonial type of rejoicing associated with religions or national festivities. Saturn brings not only physical decay but also a vision of fulfillment. Mercury is the symbol of mind. “Women of San Francisco Symphony Chorus join the SFS in the performance of Neptune, the Mystic. The concerts also include pianist Jean-Effiam Bavouzet performing Liszt’s poetic Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Gotterdammerung, the final portion of Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungen).
I recently had the opportunity to talk to SF Symphony resident conductor and music director Christian Reif and discuss his multiple roles with the SF Symphony and also the upcoming Holsts the Planets show.
Sason Bishope Parry: How is life treating you in San Francisco and when did you get here?
Christian Reif: I moved to San Francisco in August 2016, and I absolutely love it here!!
SBP: How did you get into music?
CR: My mom is a music teacher and has several choirs, so there was always a lot of music in our home. One day, after she finished giving a piano lesson, I asked her why she didn’t teach me. I was 5. She loved that obviously and taught me for 10 years.
SBP: What was the first instrument you learned and what is your favorite?
CR: The first instrument I learned was the recorder if you don’t consider banging on pots and toys making music. Then I went on to learn piano, clarinet, saxophone, and bass. My favorite “instrument” is the orchestra, as corny as that sounds. There are just so many colors and sounds one can hear from a whole ensemble.
SBP: You probably could have conducted anywhere in the World, what brought you to the SF Symphony?
CR: It’s a long and steady road, and as it often is in life, there are moments and people you encounter that lead you to the next phase of life. One of those people for me is Michael Tilson Thomas. He has been my mentor for the last few years, starting when I was a conducting fellow at the New World Symphony in Miami. He suggested that I audition for the position here in SF, and I felt an immediate bond with the musicians of the Symphony and was very impressed by the level of the Youth Orchestra. I’m very happy everything worked out this way!
SBP: Who and what has been your greatest inspiration?
CR: There are many people in my life who have inspired me. Starting with my family, my teachers in Salzburg and in NYC, friends, MTT, my fiancée Julia Bullock. The moments I make music with people are the ones that inspire me and push me to connect and communicate in a more meaningful way.
SBP: What do you enjoy most about the SF Symphony and San Francisco?
CR: The musicians of the SF Symphony are obviously in the top of their field and want to bring inspiration, entertainment, and meaning to our community. They are a wonderful group of fascinating people and I’ve become quite close to many of the musicians. I love our backstage vibes and that we hang out and go on trips outside the symphony, be it sailing, driving along the coast, hiking or kayaking. Things I enjoy most about San Francisco: the many things you can do outdoors, the great restaurants and bars, walking around the city, going to museums and concerts
SBP: Do you get nervous at times when you perform live and how do you prepare?
CR: Of course I do! It’s natural, and to a degree, necessary. It shouldn’t cripple you, but a healthy pinch of nerves translates to the excitement and higher concentration. Preparation is key though. When you know you’re prepared and that you can be present at the moment and react to whatever comes at you, you’ll be fine. As soon as I step onto the podium for a performance, I don’t feel nervous anymore, I just let myself be connected to the music and the musicians.
SBP: You seem to be very busy, tell us a little about your daily schedule?
CR: It’s difficult to say. Each day is completely different. Obviously, every day contains some part of score studying, of playing at the piano, of thinking about music, then usually I have several meetings during the week, planning and researching repertoire for future concerts; I try to work out regularly, which gets more difficult the more I travel. There are weeks where I go to a performance of some sort every night, but at least three times a week. And I like to hang out with friends, get dinner and go for drinks.
SBP: You’re the music director for the SFS Youth Orchestra, how rewarding is that?
CR: I absolutely love working with them!! I remember very clearly my time playing in Youth Orchestras in Germany, and I just hope I can foster the kind of supportive and stimulating atmosphere that has inspired me so many times. Working with the YO and the coaches have taught me so much about myself and my conducting as well.
SBP: Do you take a different approach to conducting the SF Symphony versus the SFS Youth Orchestra?
CR: My conducting technique is pretty much the same I’d say. The rehearsals vary a little. Obviously, there are some things that you need to instill in young players that the Symphony musicians already know, such as how to play in an orchestra and really listen to each other. I challenge the Youth Orchestra every rehearsal and hold them to a high standard. In the end, we all want to make great music.
SBP: What gives you the most enjoyment, conducting, playing or teaching?
CR: I couldn’t say. It’s all part of me. I love playing chamber music, producing the sound myself. And I absolutely love teaching and coaching. But conducting a great Symphony like SFS, being swept up in the music, being connected to the musicians and audience, is an exhilarating experience like nothing else.
SBP: You are conducting the upcoming Holst’s “The Planets” concerts, what can we expect?
CR: “The Planets” is a phenomenal piece of music!! Holst is ingenious in the way he portrays characters in music. It’s not about space as the title suggests, but about the human experience. Holst shows us all the facets of humanity, from the violence and stubbornness of “Mars”, to beauty, humor, joy, old age and coming to terms with dying, to leaving the here and the now and ending with the most mystical and otherworldly piece of music ever written. No wonder movie composers were influenced by him! Also on the program are Liszt’s second piano concerto and an excerpt of Wagner’s Ring, one of my favorite pieces ever!
SBP: What are you most looking forward to in conducting these concerts?
CR: I look forward to making music with my friends and colleagues and telling a story to the audience through music.
SBP: You are now finishing up your second season as SFS Resident Conductor and Music Director of the SFS Youth Orchestra – what have been some of the highlights of your time here? What do you look forward to next season?
CR: There have been so many highlights! Definitely curating SF Symphony’s Soundbox series, and my work with the Youth Orchestra, including commissioning a new piece by Anahita Abbasi.
SBP: What’s next for Christian Reif?
CR: A few months ago I got engaged to Julia Bullock, a wonderful soprano, so we’re planning our wedding for next year. We’re very happy and excited!
Christian Reif leads the SF Symphony April 26, 27 & 29 as he conducts Holst’s The Planets taking place at Davies Symphony Hall at 8 pm.
For tickets to the upcoming Holst’s “The Planets” go to:
For more info on the SF Symphony go to: www.sfsymphony.org