Wunderkind

Flutist Christina Jennings poised to shine

At nighttime at Greenwood Music Camp outside Cummington, Massachusetts, lights go out early for everyone but teachers. Exhausted yet restless, some instructors head for a quiet spot among the forested greens beneath the stars to unwind. Most of them are string players, who usually pick up makeshift ensembles and jam in not-so-perfect harmony to a Beethoven chamber tune or anything else that fits the mood. They also thump on trash barrels or clank on a couple of pots for percussion. But sometimes this group wants a little woodwind sound. So they grab Christina Jennings, a summer regular and Orchestra X principal flutist. In addition to being a talented flute player, she can blow amazing notes across the lid of an empty bottle.

Jennings cut her professional teeth, so to speak, at Greenwood. It's a camp for serious young amateurs, but also a place where adults get to be kids. Pulling all-night jams -- called "zilching" -- is part of the fun. Most days coaches are sleep-deprived, but Jennings and other freelance professional musicians love it anyway. Notes don't have to be perfect. Everyone is free of rehearsal pressures.

Since there isn't much string chamber music that includes the flute, the fair-skinned, auburn-haired wind player says she sometimes feels sidelined during these late-night workouts. Nevertheless she always manages to contribute. She's hardly a shrinking violet.

Not only is Christina Jennings virtuosic, she's also charismatic.
Phillippe Diederich
Not only is Christina Jennings virtuosic, she's also charismatic.

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At age seven Jennings rejected the piano, her mother's choice. Then she turned up her nose at the violin, the instrument of her father and two sisters, before settling on the flute. At 12 she began entering statewide competitions in Vermont and discovered she could win. When she began her undergraduate degree eight years ago, she got tired of playing the same old pieces and set her sights on training to play avant-garde music. Last spring she beat eight violinists, three cellists, five pianists and one clarinetist for first place in the Houston-based Ima Hogg International Young Artist competition. On Thursday, September 9, she claims her prize: a major orchestral debut with the Houston Symphony. She's only 26.

Poised for success, Jennings isn't pinning hopes on an orchestra job. She could wait her whole life for others to vacate their seats. She dropped out of Rice's doctoral program last year, lukewarm about taking the professor route. She prefers the bumpier ride, carving her niche as a soloist and chamber player.

The odds are against her. Thousands of flutists will try to crowd her offstage. As classical music lovers get grayer, younger audiences demand entertainment. But professionals who know her work say Jennings has got what it takes: a distinctive voice, charisma and a pyrotechnic style that works magic on the ears.

Growing up in affluent Norwich, Vermont, in the '70s, Jennings had every musical advantage. Her mother was a pianist and composer. Her father, Andrew Jennings, toured with the award-winning Concord String Quartet. The family socialized with composers and musicians. Though her playing style owes much to her musically rich roots, she has always sought to distinguish herself from her clan. Early on, she worked the differences to her advantage. At 14 she played a flute concerto with the Vermont Philharmonic, her first time joining an orchestra. "I really loved it," Jennings says. "There was something exciting about being in front of all that sound."

But marching to a different beat didn't erase her twinges of insecurity about the flute. "When I was growing up, not only was there no Brahms, like violinists and cellists get to play, I had this puny instrument that only had one line," Jennings says. Compared to Emanuel Ax's hugging an entire keyboard with pure chords or Itzhak Perlman's fingering intricate double stops on the violin, the wind player's single, long-breathed notes can sound pale.

While Jennings's school friends listened to Billy Joel or the Rolling Stones in the late '70s, she was absorbing the atonal tunes of George Rochberg, many of which were performed by her father's band. At the time, this music was radical. During the '60s and '70s, the Concord String Quartet played more than 200 premieres of pieces by contemporary composers.

What sounds atonally perverse to most people became part of Jennings's music dialect. "She was unusual because she heard contemporary music as much as traditional music," says Andrew Jennings. "She got used to the fact that composers weren't just a bunch of dead white guys." Early on, Jennings transformed her taste for cutting-edge string music into a personal flute repertory. For some, atonal music is hard to like, much less master. But she got tired of the huge void in the standard flute repertory. "There's lots of baroque and 20th-century music, but nothing in between," she says. "No Brahms, no Schumann."

While studying for her master's degree under Carol Wincenc, a successful soloist and new-music champion, Jennings began to find her own voice in the 20th-century flute repertory. Using "extended" techniques, she started letting herself go. With pitch bending, she learned how to manage glissandi between notes. Her tongue stops and harmonics make for extreme color contrasts. She likes to sing and blow notes simultaneously, producing two notes at a time. She even gets amplified flute sounds by blowing into the top of a piano. "I'm trying to make my sound garden very rich, to come up with as many different colors and timbres as I can," Jennings says.

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