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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

Nov 1, 2016

Q&A with Christian Reif, Resident Conductor and Wattis Foundation Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra


It’s only been two years since German conductor Christian Reif completed his Masters of Music in conducting at the Juilliard School, but he has already established himself as a thoughtful and communicative musician, conducting works that address topics as diverse as DJ culture and Europe’s refugee crisis.  Now he is joining the SFS as Resident Conductor, and Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.  His first concert with the Youth Orchestra is an ambitious program on November 13; he will also lead the SFS in a number of its popular family-oriented concerts. 

Q. Conducting a Youth Orchestra has its own challenges and rewards; what are you hoping to do with the orchestra as its Music Director? 

A. It’s a thrilling and wonderful responsibility! The musicians are all already accomplished on their instruments, so I see it as my job to help them grow, reach their full potential, and expose them to great repertoire from the canon as well as to works outside of their “comfort zone”. I would like to show them what it means to really listen, breathe and move with fellow musicians.


Q. You are also now Resident Conductor with the SFS itself.  What are you most looking forward to in that position? 

A. I’m looking forward to conducting the Symphony in the many family and education concerts, and the classical Christmas concert this season. It’s also a great opportunity to learn from these wonderful musicians and to continue the relationship with my mentor MTT.

Q. In addition to working with MTT at the New World Symphony, you studied conducting at Juilliard with Alan Gilbert.  Those are two of America’s most distinguished conductors.  What did you learn from your time with each of them? 

A. Both Alan and Michael have been very important for me in my development as a conductor. Studying with Alan at The Juilliard School, we focused a lot on technique and score study, of course; and through the relationship with the NY Philharmonic I got to experience first-hand what it means to work at the top of the field. I don’t view MTT as a teacher, but more like a mentor. We talk about everything, from musical ideas and repertoire, to cooking, movies, and other art forms. I’m grateful that he is so generous with his time and support.

Q. Your first concert with the SFS Youth Orchestra features a Shostakovich symphony and a piece by Henze (as well as the ever-popular Sibelius Violin Concerto).  That seems like a very challenging program for a youth orchestra!  Do today’s young musicians come out of school better prepared to play (relatively) recent works?  Do you try to convey the meaning and the emotional content of these pieces as well? 

A. Absolutely!  The technical facilities of the young musicians these days are quite extraordinary. The difficulties of contemporary music don’t faze them.  So in addition to our rehearsals, just last weekend I gave a two hour presentation for them about the current program, in order to give them more background knowledge and understanding of this difficult music. Both Henze and Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony blew me away when I encountered them as a teenager, so I’m thrilled to perform this program here with the Youth Orchestra.


Q. You will be spending a fair amount of time in the Bay Area.  What do you like about it so far?  And what are you excited to experience in the coming seasons? 

A. I love San Francisco, and enjoy walking around the city or the neighboring countryside. During the week, I usually seek out a cafe where I study scores. I also just love the food culture here.

I can’t wait to conduct all these concerts, make close bonds and deepen friendships with my colleagues at the symphony and players of the Youth Orchestra. Leading the Youth Orchestra on an international tour in an upcoming season is something I am also greatly looking forward to. 


Christian Reif leads the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6, Henze's Maenad's Dance from The Bassarids, and Sibelius's Violin Concerto in D minor with SFSYO alumnus Alexi Kenney, November 13 at Davies Symphony Hall. 415-864-6000

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