Christian Reif is a young conductor with a career in full blossom. Based in a major classical music capital, Munich — not far from his hometown of Rosenheim — he spent three years as resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and is in the midst of a post-COVID transition back to the globe-trotting life of an international conductor.
He also earned affection (and a "Best of 2020" nod from the New York Times) for the video musical missives he performed with his wife — another emerging star, soprano Julia Bullock — during the pandemic.
So what's the next stop for this star on the rise? Brainerd, Minn.
Reif was recently named music director of the Lakes Area Music Festival, which begins Friday and runs through Aug. 22.
"I've been to the festival three times in the years before COVID, and it was just a wonderful community," he said last week while sitting lakeside at Michigan's Interlochen Center for the Arts, where he'd just completed a rehearsal with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra. "It was great people, the volunteers, the community coming to the concerts, and, of course, the musicians who are top quality and from many of the best orchestras in the States. It was such a familial place of music making.
"And I feel that I have a partner in Scott Lykins [the festival's co-artistic director], who can help make my programming ideas a reality."
Lykins started the festival 12 years ago in his hometown of Brainerd with a group of fellow students from the esteemed Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. The festival's reputation grew to the degree that the orchestra Reif will lead this summer features multiple members of New York's Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and the Dallas, San Francisco and Seattle symphony orchestras.
This year's festival features a mix of new music and old, symphonies and chamber music, even an opera. When asked about pieces he's especially thrilled to perform, Reif jumped to an Aug. 7 and 8 string orchestra program that features 20th-century Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz's Concerto for Strings and a string orchestra version of Peter Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence."
"Each program has a great through line, an arc," Reif said. As an example, he pointed to concerts Saturday and Sunday that will conclude with Antonin Dvorak's "New World" Symphony.
"I think it's so important that our new home is called the Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts, because we are on Ojibwe land," Reif said, referring to a freshly christened 1,200-seat concert hall in downtown Brainerd that takes its name from the Ojibwe word for the nearby Mississippi River. "So we are inviting an Ojibwe musician, a singer and drummer, who will present some traditional and contemporary Ojibwe songs.
"Then [soprano] Brandie Sutton and I will perform Harry T. Burleigh's 'Until I Wake.' ... Burleigh was a student of Dvorak's who introduced him to spirituals and Native American music. So this is preparing the audience for what was in Dvorak's mind as he was in New York, composing the symphony."
Among other offerings are a staging of Igor Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress" — "I'm just over the moon to do that," Reif said — and performances by singers from the festival's new vocal fellows program.
And it's all free.
"We want to be as open and inviting as we can," Reif said. "To strip away the financial barrier was very important to me. … I'm very grateful for the community and the patronage and the sponsors that we have."
If you can't make it up to Brainerd, you can enjoy the performances at your computer: All 14 will be livestreamed on the festival's YouTube and Facebook pages. When the 2020 festival was canceled by COVID, many of the musicians instead presented virtual performances at those sites.
"Over the past year, 60,000 people have watched the concerts," Reif said. "And that's obviously way beyond what we can have in Brainerd."
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • email@example.com
Lakes Area Music Festival
When: July 30-Aug. 22.
Where: Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts, 602 S. 5th St., Brainerd.
Tickets: Free, but reservations required at lakesareamusic.org.