Christian Reif steps in to lead San Francisco Symphony

Christian Reif steps in to lead San Francisco Symphony

Christian Reif in Davies Symphony Hall (Photo credit: Stefan Cohen)

Review: Reif steps in to lead San Francisco Symphony, with dazzling results
By Joshua Kosman
San Francisco Chronicle
April 27, 2018

After severing connections with conductor Charles Dutoit in the wake of serious allegations of sexual misconduct, the San Francisco Symphony went looking for someone to take over the weeks he’d been scheduled to lead the orchestra. And as so often happens, the solution to the problem was right in their own backyard.

There’s a lesson in that somewhere.

Christian Reif, who stepped in on Thursday, April 26, to conduct a glorious program of music by Wagner, Liszt and Holst, has been the orchestra’s resident conductor since 2016. It’s a post that involves leading the Symphony Youth Orchestra, conducting various family concerts, serving as assistant to Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, and being a general musical jack-of-all-trades. So there was a vague temptation, when Reif was announced as the substitute for this week’s programs, to regard it as merely a case of tapping the understudy to go on.

But to think that would be to reckon without the technical assurance and forceful interpretive prowess that this young German has repeatedly displayed over the past two years. He’s a conductor of considerable stature, and everything about Thursday’s concert in Davies Symphony Hall felt like the work of a significant musical artist.

Reif’s mastery extended to matters both large and small. He showed no diffidence about managing weighty blocks of orchestral sound, and he fine-tuned passages of detailed instrumental filigree with the deftness of an artisanal craftsman. (Nothing on the program called much for a mastery of long-range symphonic architecture, but I’m content to wait patiently for Reif’s take on Bruckner.)

And although podium technique can sometimes be an unreliable visual guide to a conductor’s musical artistry, there is a balletic quality to Reif’s physical presence — at once fluid and well-defined — that corresponds well with the qualities he elicits from an orchestral score.

The magic began immediately, as Reif began the program with an imposing but graceful account of “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” From the mysterious shimmer and growing brass presence of the opening moments, through the hero’s tumultuous progress down the river and his final triumphant arrival, Reif and the orchestra collaborated to bring to life all the composer’s considerable ingenuity. In addition to providing its own delights, the performance served as a tantalizing teaser reel for the San Francisco Opera’s complete “Ring” cycle, now less than two months away.

“The Planets,” Holst’s collection of vivid character sketches on astrological (more than astronomical) themes, might almost have been designed to show off everything Reif and the orchestra could achieve together. In “Mars, the Bringer of War,” they leaned into the music’s persistent march rhythms, giving it an aptly pugnacious edge; the nimble passagework of “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” and the jaunty strut of “Uranus, the Magician” were crisply outlined.

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