Flutist Christina Jennings poised to shine

Jennings likes to entertain Houston audiences with lightning-quick playing. She is a featured soloist in the Orchestra X chamber music series. Last March she attracted a big crowd to "Voices," a postmodern program performed at the Contemporary Arts Museum. Megan Wilmot, Houston Youth Symphony flutist, first heard Jennings play an excerpt from Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" more than a year ago. "I was in awe," Wilmot says. "It was amazing." Since then, Wilmot has joined Jennings for private lessons.

With her zany maneuvers and work with Orchestra X, Jennings appeals to younger audiences. But she's still far from the big leagues of James Galway or Jean-Pierre Rampal. John Axelrod, Orchestra X conductor, thinks Jennings is unusual enough to define flute-performing for the next generation. During contests in which budding flutists make their mark, Jennings is nearly always the most seductive by virtue of her playing and presence. Although she can do a stunning Mozart concerto, she makes a bigger impression stretching her range on works by Lukas Foss, Joan Tower and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. During the 1996 Ima Hogg contest, she executed a fiery exit off the Jones Hall stage, walking while still blowing bars from Foss's Renaissance Concerto.

Winning prizes at this level is not easy. The amount of talent competing for the stage is stunning. Ginny Garrett has directed the prestigious Ima Hogg contest for 16 years. The annual contest attracts about 100 musicians worldwide. "The level of performance is so high," Garrett says. "It's agonizing for the judges. They have to go to such [hairsplitting] levels of analysis, way beyond rhythm and the right notes." Judges look at a finalist's ability to interpret the composer's style and his period, and see if the player has an implicit grasp of the rest of his instrument's repertoire. Of Jennings's first-place win last year, Garrett says: "She stood out way beyond everyone else."

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

Beating out cellists who performed Dvorak's Cello Concerto is impressive. But Jennings also manages to excite composers she works with. Geoffrey Hudson, a Boston composer of choral music, wrote "The Mayor of the Nighttime City" for her. In four movements, it proceeds from menacing unpredictability to prayerlike peace. These shifts exploit Jennings's technical range. "I don't consider myself a natural flute lover," Hudson says. "But the way Christina plays it, she gets so many sounds out of it. She's very attentive to the color of sound and the different sounds you can get out of a flute, like a singer shaping the vowels."

But in these times, veteran flutists say it's not enough to be virtuosic. You've got to shine. "Not always does the greatest talent make it," says Claire Johnson, professor of flute performance at Southern Methodist University and UH's Moores School of Music. "If you're gonna be a soloist, you've got to have charisma. I think you're born with it."

Those who've seen Jennings's fingers fly allude that her unique appeal could someday propel her into the same camp as Anne-Sophie Mutter or Sarah Chang.

Not only does Jennings have the star quality, says her mentor Wincenc, she's got all the talent to go with it. "She's absolutely in that league of distinctive soloists and chamber players who can do everything else. She's got the elegance. She's beautiful. She's got it all." And Orchestra X's Axelrod thinks Jennings combines the vision of her 20th-century voice with innate ability and stage presence. "She's not just fluff. She doesn't go for the glamour. The glamour goes for her." Some say Jennings's gift is her knack for speaking to every audience member individually. "A lot of musicians are inwardly aware," says Alecia Lawyer, Orchestra X principal oboist. "I think she's inwardly and outwardly aware of what she's doing."

Jennings's goal -- playing classical music in a media-driven world -- is also her greatest obstacle. Axelrod believes talent and charisma are important, but to succeed with younger audiences, vision is also a necessity. "You have to bring something new to the tableŠ.In a media-driven world, unless [a performer] can identify with an audience, they're not going to connect. What makes Yo Yo Ma so popular is that his educational vision and his performance vision come through on and off the stage."

Despite her kudos and successes, Jennings is still humble. Tired after nights of zilching it with fellow Greenwood chamber players, she's always reminded of the difficulties ahead. "I think it's gonna be a long road," she says. For flutists, getting recognized is not the same as it is for pianists, violinists or cellists. "If you look on the roster of soloists listed in Chamber Music America [a music trade journal], there is a tiny percentage of flutists compared to the dozens of singers, cellists, violinists and pianists," she says. "It's about who you know and how you make connections. I'll try to do the stuff a manager does, but on a small scale [at first]."

Wincenc sees her student as a young counterpart and feels her versatility will open doors. Besides symphony gigs with Orchestra X, Jennings will be performing out of town occasionally, and she plans to enter the prestigious Rampal Competition. Every now and then, she will pull out her piccolo to substitute with the Houston Grand Opera orchestra.

"She's a seeker by nature," says Wincenc, "because she's trying to find answers to her own inner life as well as her outer life."

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