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A Young Mentor for a Young Orchestra

March 1, 2019

By Steve Holt

Christian Reif is in his third and final season as Wattis Foundation Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO), whom he leads this month in selections from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Debussy’s Ibéria, and Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2. Reif also serves as the Symphony’s Resident Conductor, leading everything from Concerts for Kids to full subscription programs; in January 2019 he conducted the SFS in works of Lutosławski, R. Strauss, and Prokofiev. We spoke to him recently about his time here.

Q: Is it safe to say there have been many highlights over these three seasons with the SFSYO?

A: Absolutely! Last March we partnered with ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, in commissioning and premiering a piece by the Iranian composer Anahita Abbasi [...within the shifting grounds...]. That was really cool, to develop a new work together with the composer. We’ve also done The Rite of Spring and Mathis der Maler by Hindemith.  

Q. What are you looking forward to in this final season?

A. I always try to find pieces that the YO musicians should know while working on everything from the technical aspects to the history and style of the music.

A good example is Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, which we played in November. It’s his most difficult symphony. We’re also doing Debussy’s Ibéria this month, to try to find that French style. And I’m inviting singers from the San Francisco Symphony Opera’s Adler Fellowship Program to perform with us in some arias and scenes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. To be able to play Mozart well is crucial in my opinion. Finally, we’re playing Mahler’s First Symphony to close the season. These are huge undertakings, because you actually have to dive into the deeper meanings of the music, and that will be a challenge for everyone. 

Q. And then there’s your European tour at the end of the season.

A. Yes! We’ll be doing the Mahler, plus the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Nicola Benedetti, and also American Prelude No. 1, by Detlev Glanert, a German composer.

We'll perform in the Berlin Philharmonie and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, among other venues. That’s huge, to be able to play in this dramatic new hall in Hamburg. It’s already almost sold out!

Q. What makes the SFSYO unique?

A. Obviously the quality of the playing is wonderful, but what makes the SFSYO so special is that it’s deeply engrained in the SFS organization. All of our coaches are SFS players. That’s invaluable.

Q. What’s next for you, after your final season with the YO?

A. [laughs] Julia Bullock [soprano and future SFS collaborative partner] and I just got married. Right now she’s based in New York, and I’m based here, but after this year, we’ll finally be able to move in together. We don’t quite know where yet but we’re thinking of Munich.

Q. Anything else you’d like to mention?

A. You really have one of the best orchestras in the world here. Come to a concert, and be surprised and love it!

STEVE HOLT is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.