INTERVIEW WITH JENNIFER CHRISTENOn September 3, 2012, Principal Flutist Karen Evans Moratz met up with the ISO’s new Principal Oboist Jennifer Christen for a Labor Day Barbeque and an interview. Jennifer was officially hired by the ISO in the Spring of 2012. She finished out the 2012 season with the New World Symphony in Miami, Florida, playing Mahler’s 9th Symphony under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas at the New World Center, and then traveled to Switzerland to play at the Verbier Festival, where she worked with musicians from every corner of the globe. On the day of the interview, Jennifer had just moved into her new one-bedroom apartment downtown and was excited to be settling in to her new life in Indianapolis.
Karen Evans Moratz: When did you start playing the oboe?
Jennifer Christen: I started playing the oboe when I was in the fourth grade, when I was ten years old, but I started playing the piano at the age of five.
KEM: Is there any particular reason why you picked the oboe?
JC: When it came time to choose our instruments in school, I knew I wanted to play a woodwind instrument rather than a string instrument. It couldn’t be the flute, because my twin sister had already decided that she wanted to play the flute, and I didn’t want to do choose the same instrument as my twin. I considered the clarinet, but then realized I wasn’t that crazy about the sound it produced. My best friend, Katie, with whom I had been best friends since the age of three, picked the oboe, so I decided to copy her and I picked the oboe as well. At our school in Hamburg, NY, (Buffalo area) the students who wanted to play the oboe had to prove themselves academically first, to make sure that they were willing to put in the work to play such a difficult instrument. Fortunately I passed that test!
KEM: Was there any point at which you realized that it would be your life’s work, your profession?
JC: I always knew I loved music. My mom did make us practice in the beginning, and at first I never really wanted to practice. Around seventh or eighth grade, I was sitting principal in the school band and participating in a woodwind quintet and started practicing more. Then, in the eighth grade, I got a spot in the local youth orchestra, and I fell in love with it. The group met on Monday evenings, and I looked forward to the rehearsals every week. I fell in love with the sound of the orchestra and started listening to orchestral music whenever I could. My oboe teacher, Pierre Roy, who was Principal Oboe with the Buffalo Philharmonic, introduced me to Cleveland Orchestra recordings, and of course I got to hear the Buffalo Philharmonic play concerts all the time. It was then that I realized that it was even possible to have a musical career. And then I couldn’t really imagine doing anything else!
KEM: What were your musical pursuits like in high school?
JC: In high school, I was in both Wind Ensemble and Orchestra for all four years. I also played piano in the Jazz Ensemble!
KEM: Do you still play the piano?
JC: Yes! I don’t have a piano here in Indianapolis, but when I visit my mother in New York, I sit at her piano and play for a couple of hours at a time.
KEM: Were there any other extracurricular activities you enjoyed in High School?
JC: I was always really into sports. I did track in high school, and up until the tenth grade I played soccer. I also swam a lot when I was growing up. Playing all those sports may have helped me be in shape for playing a woodwind instrument.
KEM: When it became time to apply to colleges, what was that process like?
JC: My oboe teacher, Pierre Roy, who had studied with Alfred Genovese at the New England Conservatory, made sure that I had lessons with other teachers so that I could compare teaching and playing styles and start to think about who I might want to study with at college. He was very good about exposing me to different teachers and possibilities. I auditioned at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Eastman School of Music, the Juilliard School, and the Curtis Institute. I ended up going to Juilliard. A music lover from Buffalo, NY had donated money to the school when he passed away--the money is earmarked for Juilliard students from Buffalo, so I was offered a scholarship from his fund. So far, at least four Juilliard students have had their entire tuitions paid from this scholarship fund. A lot of people enjoy attending concerts and that’s great, but the patrons who go further really make some amazing things possible: they allow for someone like me to fulfill my dream and for those concerts to exist for everyone’s listening enjoyment.
KEM: Did you work odd jobs to support yourself through school?
JC: I didn’t have to. I did work-study in the Admissions Office at Juilliard, but luckily my parents covered anything that the scholarship didn’t. I did get some gigs in and around New York, though. I played concerts with a woodwind quintet called the “Puff Quintet” throughout my six years at Juilliard. When I was working on my Master’s Degree, I started to perform with small orchestras like the New Haven Symphony. I was on the substitute list for the Metropolitan Opera, and I got called several times, but when they called it was always an emergency where the sub was required to be at Lincoln Center in concert dress, instrument in hand, immediately. Once, I was in the right place at the right time: an oboist at the Met had had a family emergency and had to leave after Act 1 of Wagner’s Die Walküre, so I came in during intermission to play the second oboe part on Acts 2 and 3. Of course, there was no rehearsal. It was scary and awesome!
KEM: Who were your teachers at Juilliard?
JC: At Juilliard, I studied with several teachers. I had also auditioned at the Cleveland Institute because I wanted to study with John Mack (former Principal Oboe with the Cleveland Orchestra). But John Mack actually ended up being my teacher at Juilliard for my first year there. I got a lesson with him every other week. He passed away after my first year. I feel very fortunate to have studied with him and I still remember a lot of the things he told me. Starting with my second year, I chose to split my time between Elaine Douvas and Nathan Hughes, the co-principal oboists at the Metropolitan Opera. I then studied with Nathan Hughes exclusively starting with my Senior year and on into my Master’s. So I had three teachers in the six years I was at Juilliard!
KEM: What made you decide to get a Master’s at Juilliard as well?
JC: I was trying to decide what to do after receiving my Bachelor’s Degree, and I thought it would be beneficial to keep taking the lessons while I started taking orchestra auditions, in order to really keep up my level of playing. I auditioned at the Cleveland Institute again, because I love Frank Rosenwein’s (Principal Oboe with Cleveland Orchestra) playing as well, but I still had the scholarship at Juilliard, so I decided to stay there instead.
KEM: What about the cost of living in NYC? Not so easy to manage for a student!
JC: That’s certainly true. It seemed like I was always spending more money than I really meant to in New York. I got some loans, and my mom helped me out a couple of times too. Living in New York really changed me, toughened me up a little. On the other hand, in Indianapolis, everyone is really nice. It reminds me of Buffalo!
KEM: Was your family supportive of your studies? Were they fearful as to whether or not you would get a job?
JC: I consider myself really lucky. A lot of my friends had this issue throughout school, but my family was always very supportive of my music. My sister pursued music as well, and I think that our parents realized at the time that there was really nothing else that we were devoting that much time and energy to, and that it was making us happy. At one of my first lessons, John Mack asked me, “Is there anything else in the world that you would even consider doing, other than the oboe?” I told him no, and he said “Well, good. Because if you had said yes, I would tell you to quit right now, and go do that other thing.” His point was that music is really that tough and all-consuming. I found out later that he asked all of his students that question!
KEM: Speaking of family, tell me about your siblings. You have a twin sister?
JC: My identical twin sister, who still plays the flute, is five minutes older than me, and we have two younger brothers. Both brothers used to play the trombone and did so throughout high school, but it wasn’t really their thing--they didn’t go into it professionally. Both brothers are now in college; one is studying engineering, the other accounting. Now my mom is an empty nester!
KEM: Speaking of how tough the music business is, how many auditions did you take before you won the ISO job?
JC: There were eighteen. I won a couple of them: New Haven Symphony, where I played for a while. I was also runner-up for the Pacific Symphony a few years ago. I got a job at the Michigan Opera last year, but I decided to go to the New World Symphony in Miami instead. (New World Symphony is “America’s Orchestral Academy,” a training program led by Michael Tilson Thomas.) After my Indianapolis audition, I played for a week with the Milwaukee Symphony, a courtesy week which was a result of my audition there. I was also granted a courtesy week playing English Horn with the Atlanta Symphony as a result of being the last one standing in their audition. So I’ve had some luck, but you really have to take a lot of auditions and be very persistent. I’ve had varying results, sometimes having very different experiences even when auditioning twice for the same position. You have to not let it get to you, which is really hard. At New World Symphony, they organize mock auditions for the musicians and we critique each other, so we get to experience the audition process from the perspective from both sides, which is helpful.
KEM: Where was your first audition?
JC: It was in Indianapolis! I was twenty years old and still at Juilliard, and Nathan Hughes encouraged me to take it. Everyone has their own process in preparing for auditions, and dealing with what it takes to feel comfortable. I didn’t have that process down yet at the time, but I do now! I was younger, and hadn’t quite found my groove yet, but it was a really good experience for me to take that audition.
KEM: That was the first Principal Oboe audition we held after Malcolm Smith retired! We didn’t actually end up hiring anyone from that audition and had to wait until our next Music Director (Urbanski) was announced before we could consider having another Principal Oboe audition. How was your second ISO audition, which was 3 years later, different from your first?
JC: Right around that time, for about 6 months, a lot of things were coming together for me, and something really clicked.
KEM: Clearly, we were just waiting for you for the past few years, because you won that audition! It took five yrs and two rounds of auditions for us to find you, the right person for the position of Principal Oboe with the ISO. Your sound, style, and musical aesthetic fit so well with everything we have been striving for.
JC: That is really great to hear!
KEM: You’ve also played in some pretty important Music Festivals, including the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. Did you audition for that as well?
JC: I had to play an audition for my first year there, but after that I was fortunate enough to get asked back each year. This summer was my third time there. And next year, I’ve been asked to come back to teach at their newly formed high school division. I’ll be one of two woodwind coaches (the other woodwind coach is a clarinetist with the Berlin Philharmonic), and I will have my own chalet!
KEM: Which well-known conductors have you worked with already during your career?
JC: Some of the more famous ones have been James Levine (Music Director, Metropolitan Opera), Michael Tilson Thomas (Music Director, San Francisco Symphony), and Alan Gilbert (Music Director, New York Philharmonic).
KEM: Are you looking at other jobs as those positions come up? Any plans to audition elsewhere?
JC: I would be very happy here in Indianapolis, because I love the city and the people and the culture here. But I’m still young, and I do want to audition for a few more years. I’m not settled yet and I don’t have a family, so that means I have more time to practice. If there’s a big job that comes up, something that is attractive to me artistically, I would definitely take that audition.
KEM: You travel quite a bit…one of the reasons is your boyfriend Alistair!
JC: Yes, Alistair is Second Flute with the Sydney Opera and we originally met at the Verbier Festival. This summer, he didn’t go to Verbier, but I traveled to Sydney after the festival to see him, and then he came back to the U.S. with me to visit for a little while. We’d like to live in the same place eventually and we’re working toward that. In the meantime, we can travel…we even met up on in Seattle earlier this year!