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From coast to coast and country to country, Bavaria-born conductor Christian Reif is now bringing his Midas touch to stages around the world.

By Rachel Watkins

He’s been called a conductor of "technical assurance and forceful interpretive prowess" — and that sounds just about right for German-born Christian Reif, former Resident Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. He just completed his three seasons in city by the bay — after two seasons at the highly regarded New World Symphony — and has relocated to Munich, much closer to his original home in Bavaria.  

During the last few years, though, he conducted a range of different SFS concert formats including world premieres, contemporary collaborations, and cutting-edge late-night series. He also made too many debut appearances to name at leading symphonies across the country — and the world. And, we can only expect that he has plenty more music magic up his sleeve!

We recently chatted with this impressive talent —  he was seemingly destined to pick up the baton — about his background, his time in San Fran, and his plans for the future.

Where did you grow up and how did you get into music?

I was born in Germany — in a village in Bavaria. I grew up in musical family; although my dad is a doctor, my mother is a pianist — she was my piano teacher for 10 years! — and my siblings are all musicians. My younger brother, Thomas, is concertmaster of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and my younger sister is a singer.

Take us on your musical journey — from the early days to now.

I started piano at around age 5. As I got a little older, I also picked up the clarinet and sax and dabbled in the drums. I loved playing all kinds of music. Music was just fun and playful at the beginning, but when I started taking it more seriously, I practiced several hours every day. When I was a teenager, I was interested in a variety of things. But, it quickly became clear to me that music was my passion, and I wanted to make it central to my life.

In terms of schooling, I studied with Dennis Russell Davies at the Mozarteum Salzburg and then with Alan Gilbert at the Juilliard School, where I received my Master of Music in Conducting. After Juilliard, I went to the New World Symphony in Miami. A couple years later, MTT [Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony and Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony] invited me to audition for the San Francisco Symphony. And, there I was for three seasons!

Who have been your most influential teachers?

There are so many — through every phase of my life, people have been very influential and supportive, starting with my parents. Alan Gilbert is definitely a mentor for me, though, and MTT has been critical to my career. But, just being here with the professional orchestra in San Francisco, I have already learned so much from all the musicians.

You’ve lived on both coasts. Did you prefer San Francisco or New York City?

Oh, that’s a tough question. I loved being in New York when I was there. At that time, I was a student [at Juilliard] and in a different phase of life, so it just worked. It is such an exhilarating, great city. But, in San Francisco, I enjoyed it so much, too. It was wonderful there; the cuisine; the restaurant and nightlife scene; the nature around — there was always a view. I biked around a lot.

" Never forget to live life because that’s how you inform your music-making. "

Tell us about your experience in Miami with the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy.

Yes, well, that was incredible, as NWS plays such an integral role not just in creating innovative concerts and performances, but also in bringing music to the community and developing audiences through public events and special engagements. They also prepare graduates of music programs for leadership roles in professional orchestras and ensembles. While there, it was so great to not only play standard classical repertoire pieces, but also to do modern collaborations with DJs and bands for a very cool, hip vibe geared towards a younger community.

Most memorable concert — as a conductor or as an audience member?

Every concert is unique and has life; they never repeat. And, there are so many concerts that are very vivid in my mind. A couple of years ago, I conducted Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, which was one of most touching and emotionally deep performances for me.  Recently, I stepped in for MTT to conduct Sibelius Symphony No. 2. It was a very exhilarating experience, too — and I just felt the orchestra with me throughout the entire concert.

The concerts I did with the San Francisco Youth Orchestra were very all very special, but especially conducting Mahler's First Symphony with them in the Berlin Philharmonie, Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie and the Musikverein in Vienna, during our recent European tour.

 

" Be present and find clarity with what you want to hear "

What’s your advice for young conductors out there?

Never forget to live life because that’s how you inform your music-making. It’s also important to be present and find clarity with what you want to hear — and you have to find your own way of communicating that through your body. Obviously, it’s beneficial to play different instruments and listen to a wide range of musicians, too, as you develop your own ways of communicating to both the orchestra and the audience.

Any rituals or regimen on concert days? 

On the day of the performance, I try to take a nap. I stretch before the concert, eat a banana, and really try to get into my body and headspace to center myself. I also make a point of talking to our musicians beforehand; we are making music together and that communal experience is so critical to the unity of the performance.

If you were not a conductor today, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t in music, I think I would be in education — a teacher or a professor to pass on knowledge, whether in music or another subject like history, art, and math. I love working with students.

What’s next for you?

Well, I literally just landed in Munich with my wife, and we are currently sitting in a half-empty apartment — designing and planning a lot. As for next season, I’m thrilled to be making many debuts with great orchestras in the U.S. and Europe — and also returning to several ensembles for some exciting music making! Some highlights include: Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Toledo Symphony, North Carolina Symphony, and Santa Barbara Symphony along with Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lyon, Orchestre National de Belgique, Bucharest Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, and RTE. I’ll also come back to the San Francisco Symphony to conduct some of the concerts that my wife is curating — she is an Artist in Residence next season.

" Since moving to Munich, I’ve been telling everyone in Europe about them! "

What Coregami items are you using? How have they been helpful to you on or off the stage?

A friend of mine — a conductor and pianist — told me about Coregami, and I’m so glad he did. After the first shirt I bought and wore, I was so enthusiastic about it. And so now that’s all I wear. I think I have every single shirt there is — two of each. It’s a wonderful product; the shirts are so comfortable and they look good. I love them. Since moving to Munich, I’ve been telling everyone in Europe about them!

 

Learn more about Christian here.

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