On her most recent trip to Korea, German flute virtuoso Kathrin Christians offers fine-tuning at KNU’s German School of Music Weimar and gives a moving performance in Seoul.
Kathrin Christians, for nearly seven years principal flute of the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra, walked onto the stage of the Goethe-Institut Seoul to enthusiastic cheers and applause. The program for Masters & Students was more than half over, but she was about to perform her first solo of the evening. With the comfortable command of a veteran teacher (she had, in fact, been teaching all-day masterclasses for the past week at the German School of Music Weimar (GSMW), Kangnam University), she crossed the boards in a floor-length gown to change music stands, asking the mostly Korean audience, “Do you understand German?”
Masters & Students was the kind of event that is common in Europe, less so in Korea, where established professionals and elite students performed together. GSMW students of Professor Philipp Jundt (flute) and Professor Matthias Luft (clarinet) shared the stage with Christians, Jundt, Professor Hyunim Yoon of Suwon University, and Kim So-youn of Youngam University to perform a program mostly of 19th and 20th century pieces, ranging from Schubert to Shostakovich. 29-year-old Christians was the featured soloist.
After giving some background on Theobald Boehm and Charles-Marie Widor, Christians began with Boehm’s Grand Polonaise for Flute and Piano. Led in by GSMW accompanist Ahn Hye-lim’s majestic introduction of the Adagio Maestoso on the piano, the first notes from Christians’s flute brightened the room like sunlight breaking through clouds. Her deft fingers fluttered lightly over the keys through beautiful legato phrasing as the piano eased the piece into a leisurely 3/4 time.
Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) was primarily responsible for the design of the modern flute. As Christians had explained earlier to the audience, his design allowed flutists to play faster and with better intonation, inspiring him to compose pieces demanding great technical skill — Grand Polonaise in particular.
Christians demonstrated such requisite skill in the dynamically contrasted second movement, the Polonaise. Her lively execution at the start evoked images of young villagers at a celebration (polonaise refers to a dance of Polish origin). Then, after a momentary solemnity, she took the audience through a passage that was both playful and rigorous. Exercising a masterful control of breath and beautifully navigating through a continuous stream of notes, she brought Grand Polonaise to an exuberant conclusion.
This stunning performance was followed by the subtler, more complex Suite for Flute and Piano, Op. 34 by Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937). In the opening movement Moderato, Ahn swept the oversized figurative canvas with dreamy background colors as Christians drew wondrous lyrical outlines. The second movement Scherzo: Allegro vivace had Christians the painter gleefully twisting and twirling her brush, punctuating her work with meticulous flourishes, only to be briefly distracted with a somber trio. In the third movement Romance: Andantino she affectionately gave shape and color to the subjects and the foreground. After a pause, during which she brushed away a tear formed by sheer expenditure, she breathed life into her painting in a Finale of nimble technique and exhaustive emotion. One wonders how Christians is able to produce the breath for such long melodies.
Some of the credit surely goes to Professor Davide Formisano, from whom she received a masters degree with distinction earlier this year at the University of Music and Performing Arts Stuttgart. “He is someone who can give you a real analysis of your playing, your problems, and how to get over them,” Christians says of her former teacher. The way he teaches breathing and how to use the diaphragm has been particularly helpful. After working with Formisano, she says, “I changed, and everything is so much easier now.”
A native of Heidelberg, Christians has always had music in her life. At only three years old, she was listening with her father to his vinyl records and singing along to Schubert and Pergolesi. It wasn’t long before he showed her how to read music, guiding her through Die schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Miller) by Schubert. The next year she began learning the recorder. But after half a year, she realized she wanted to create bigger sounds than the recorder could produce.
She continued singing but spent the next six years trying to find another instrument that would suit her. She tried the oboe, the clarinet; neither were a good match. At her parents’ suggestion, she gave the flute a try. Christians felt the similarities between singing and playing the flute. “You have to do a lot with your breath and think like a singer,” she says. “I had one lesson and immediately fell in love.”
With the support of her parents, what for most children is a mere hobby became a serious passion for 10-year-old Christians. “When I changed to the flute,” she explains, “my parents didn’t have that much money and told me it was an instrument that was quite expensive. So we had a gentlemen’s agreement: I had to rehearse every day for half an hour. And I thought that was really okay.” Playing was never forced on her, and it didn’t take long for half an hour each day to become an hour or two or five. “I’ve always really loved rehearsing and playing,” she says. Moreover, “because my parents supported me so much and started this early with me,” she was able to make music her life’s work.
In high school Christians was a member of two choirs, an orchestra, a chamber music ensemble, and a flute ensemble, while also taking private lessons. Her flute teacher Bärbel Dal Col encouraged her to enter competitions, where she excelled. Even while still in high school, however, Christians felt she needed a change. Dal Col suggested she audition for study at university. She did, and soon began going once a week before her high school classes to receive lessons from Prof. Jean-Michel Tanguy at the University of Music and Performing Arts Mannheim.
School is a time when it’s easy to feel different. German children “are involved in a lot of things,” Christians explains. In addition to school, “they play tennis, they play soccer, they take piano. But they don’t have to train for these extra activities very seriously. It’s really more for fun.” Someone like Christians, however, a “child who is really interested – that has focus on an instrument, on music, on playing concerts, and doing competition – is considered strange.”
“But that changes when we become adults,” she points out. “People get more relaxed.” She’s found it much easier to relate to different kinds of people since then, although “I always have to be very careful that I don’t talk about music all the time,” she laughs.
Christians successfully concluded her studies with Tanguy in 2008, receiving an artistic training degree* (Diplom Künstlerische Ausbildung). She then went on to study with Prof. Andràs Adorjàn at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich, where she received master class certification in 2010. She has continued to enjoy success at competition, most notably in 2009 at the 1st Mediterranean Flute Competition in Larissa, Greece, where she won second prize, and third prize last year at the International Severino Gazzelloni Competition in Roccasecca, Italy.
“Do you know the meaning of the title?” Christians asks a student during a lesson at Kangnam University’s German School of Music Weimar, where she taught masterclasses for a week. They are practicing Pietro Morlacchi’s Il Pastore Svizzero (The Swiss Shepherd) for Flute and Piano, and Christians says there is not enough feeling in her playing.
When the student confesses she doesn’t know the meaning of the title, Christians presses, “Do you know where your professor (Jundt) is from?”
Suddenly unsure of herself, the student manages to eke out, “Switzerland.”
“Yes!” says Christians then proceeds to explain that the piece is folk music — easy, not intellectual. She says to imagine a traditional German or Swiss folk dance then demonstrates by breaking into an energetic imitation — legs swinging and high heels clomping on the floor.
The player is doing more than just producing sounds from their instrument, Christians explains. “The music has a history that’s being told by you to your audience.”
Christians is an exacting teacher and expects her students to be as serious about the music as she is. “I like teaching people who like to learn,” she says. In addition to technique, she emphasizes the importance of expressing emotions through playing. “Sometimes you’re really glad, really happy. Sometimes you’re so sad because you have just experienced the worst thing in your life,” she explains. “All of those things are inside the music.”
Casual listeners might suppose these students already play beautifully. So how does a technically proficient student become a player who is truly outstanding? Christians suggests they shouldn’t focus so much on “doing it the right way, having the right fingering.” She says, instead, students must go beyond this and even beyond the teacher. They must also listen to recordings, go to concerts, soak in the culture of the music they’re playing. “You have to feel it.”
This philosophy is one Christians practices in her own life. She’s proficient in several languages, surprisingly tech savvy, a voracious reader, a lover of museums, and an avid traveler. “When I travel to someplace new,” she says, “I try to find the real life of the country or city.”
Students who immerse themselves in the music and culture this way will, perhaps, be able to enjoy opportunities like the kind Christians has had with the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra. It’s amusing to think this life changing opportunity was one she nearly ignored.
Christians vividly remembers the mysteriously terse email she received one day. It began simply with, “”Hello.” No name,” she recounts incredulously even after all these years. “Not, “Hello, Kathrin” or “Hello, Ms. Christians,” Nothing.” The email went on to say the orchestra was looking for a new principal flute and asked if she would be interested in auditioning.
Christians remembers thinking at the time, “How many flutists in Germany have received this email? Why should I answer it?” Realizing she had nothing to lose, however, she replied to the email and went in for an audition, playing from Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. She got the job and played the same symphony at her first concert. “There is quite a hard part for the flute,” she notes with a chuckle, “and they wanted to see if the new flutist was prepared to play and record it in one month.”
If taking that email seriously was a gamble, it has clearly paid off. Christians’s nearly seven years as principal flute with the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra and the Mannheim Mozart Orchestra (both are directed by Thomas Fey) has provided her good friends, travel, performances, and recordings. “Salieri: Overtures & Stage Music”, recorded with Fey and the Mannheim Mozart Orchestra even received a Grammy nomination for Best Orchestral Performance in 2011.
Not yet thirty, Christians has already had an accomplished career. While she’s thankful for all of the experiences and opportunities she’s had, she always keeps an eye on the future. With successes, however, there are bound to be setbacks. Christians takes it all in stride, reciting a Chinese proverb that has given her inspiration, “Do not be afraid of going slowly; be afraid only of standing still.”
Visit Kathrin Christians online at her website, her Facebook fan page, and on Twitter.