SF Symphony Resident Conductor Christian Reif. Photo by Terrence McCarthy/SF Symphony.
To coincide with the last day of Oktoberfest in Munich, the SF Symphony hosts on Tuesday its own version of the event. Rather than a month-long bacchanal as they do in Germany, it will be a one-night-only concert with beer served in Davies Symphony Hall before and during the concert, and a beer garden set up outside afterwards for more beer, German sausages and other bites, and beer. For the music, it won't be the oom-pah sound of the German beer tent, but a lighter take with a quartet of outstanding singers (Julie Adams, Daniela Mack, David Blalock and Edward Nelson) crooning through drinking-themed opera arias. For instance: "Fin ch'han dal vino" from Mozart's Don Giovanni, or "Libiamo ne' lieti calici", the drinking tune from La Traviata that doubles as the final sing-along at every Opera in the Park celebration (by the way, you can see the whole Traviata at SF Opera right now). There will also be Strauss' Polkas to be true to the Oktoberfest spirit.
The current symphony resident conductor (and music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra) Christian Reif hails from Bavaria and has grown up playing in both chamber ensembles and polka bands. I saw him twice: at the gala where he led the strings into a short MTT-composed happy birthday tune, and when he stepped in to replace a pregnant Joana Carneiro on bed rest with the Berkeley Symphony. Both times, he held the fort with poise. Being ready for the unexpected is most of what he does: his job in the symphony involves filling in for indisposed conductors. I chatted with Christian over the phone this past week-end.
SFist: The SF Symphony will put together its first Oktoberfest celebration. What is your role in this?
Christian: On Tuesday October 3rd, the SF Symphony will put together its Oktoberfest, basically celebrating for one night with a lot of music from all kinds of symphonic and operatic moments that have a partying theme and alcohol in mind; and then have a good time with beer during the concert and afterwards as well.
How it came up was a combination of several different things. The symphony had this idea for many years now of putting it together. Joshua Robinson, MTT's husband, and I, we talked about it. I put a polka band show, or a polka band group of musicians together last year after one of the matinee concerts. It was at lot of fun, and I think it started the ball rolling. And Marni Cook (who is volunteer council director) asked: why don't we do a whole concert for Oktoberfest? This is the first one. It has been many years in the works. The timing is right, now that I'm here as the Resident Conductor and being from Bavaria, it's kind of a great fit. Of course I was on board. At home in Germany, I used to play in a polka band as a clarinet player. So I have a lot of pieces and a lot of music.
With the symphony, we are playing a lot of symphonic and operatic music. We have four incredible singers joining us as well. We will highlight moments of literature that are party scenes. We will play some typical Bavarian music, just a little bit as well. We will play some Strauss's polkas, things I grew up with, dancing music and polka orchestra.
How did you become Resident conductor for the SF Symphony?
I grew up in Rosenheim, close to Munich, in Bavaria, Germany. There I did a lot of music, playing in lots of different orchestras and bands. Then I studied conducting and piano at Mozarteum in Salzburg in Austria. Then I did my Masters in conducting at Juilliard with Alan Gilbert, and after that I came to Miami and the New World Symphony and that's where I met Michael [ed: Tilson-Thomas, who founded that orchestra]. We have a great relationship, he's wonderful mentor to me. When this job opened up here in San Francisco, I was one of the finalists who auditioned for the job, and got it.
Your duties include being ready to cover if a conductor was unavailable at the last minute. Did you ever have to replace anyone?
I also conduct all the education and family programs, all the community engagement, the school concerts, that kind of things. In SF, I haven't had to jump in for a concert. I've done a few rehearsals. Sometimes Michael likes to listen from the hall, especially for anything that is staged, or for any production that use multimedia and lighting. He likes to look at the whole production from the hall, and I conduct some of the rehearsals. This is my second year. I only cover for Michael, Blomstedt and Dutoit. For the other conductors, it's on a case-by-case basis, either somebody else is covering, or the concert doesn't happen.
Is it because both Blomstedt and Dutoit over eighty years old?
No, it's because they're good! Maybe age has influenced this. But other than Michael, they are the two conductors who have the longest standing relationship with the orchestra, and they usually conduct twice a year, two weeks. I don't cover for everybody because the symphony wants to be flexible with me conducting elsewhere, so I travel a lot to conduct in Europe and in America. That gives me the option to conduct elsewhere.
How do you prepare for rehearsal as a cover?
I prepare the music, but I'm just there to cover. Also, part of my job is to listen for balance in the hall and make sure the soloist gets heard, and that the interpretation from the person on the podium travels into the hall.
I learn a lot just by observing, yes. The mentoring happens outside of rehearsal. Afterwards, we talk about the rehearsal, about issues with the piece, anything, all kind of different things: balance issues; is the soloist is being heard, or do the winds need to come up a little more. We talk of course about the difficulty of conducting and we talk about programming, about different ideas of music and pieces. It's very broad. We talk about everything in life.
You play the piano and the clarinet. Do you need to know to play other instruments to conduct?
I used to play some saxophone. To conduct, you need to know what is possible with any instrument, and know the specifics and the characteristics of the instrument. You don't have to be able to play all the instruments.
You were critical of the extreme right party before the German election of September. Is it your duty to speak up?
The concern that anyone has right now, is that right wing extremists and populist parties are gaining more attraction. It's bothering and very frustrating for me of course. For the election itself, Angela Merkel will continue being chancellor for next four years. I hope and try to encourage everyone to really educate themselves with the parties and to know what they are voting for, and what they can vote for. The AfD, that populist party, is not an option, it has no business in the German government. They did achieve to get some amount of percentage, and they will have a seat in parliament, which is very frustrating to me. I think with more education, with more communication, everyone will open their eyes and come together. I'm against the right populist party. It's no secret and it's our duty to speak out against some extremist ideas.