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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.

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."

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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