For Pacific Symphony, Carl St.Clair was the Right Man at the Right Moment

Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

Carl St.Clair celebrates his 30th season as the conductor of Pacific Symphony this year.

In many ways, a symphony orchestra is a symbol of a community’s personality as well as its aspirations, and its conductor is its public face and spokesperson.

Every major city in the world has one or more resident orchestras, each with a music director whose status within the community is respected, even exalted. These days, a conductor is expected to do as much work away from the podium as on it – spearheading education and outreach efforts, meeting the public, helping with the ongoing and ever-morphing effort to make the orchestra a vital part of civic life.

The right pairing of orchestra and conductor, like a successful marriage, can last for decades, the relationship deepening and becoming more meaningful as the years pass, trials and triumphs are shared, audiences grow increasingly dedicated and beloved repertoire is programmed a second, third or even fourth time.

The 20th century saw many such long and fruitful partnerships between music director and orchestra: Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwangler with the Berlin Philharmonic, Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony, George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugen Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic, Karel Ancerl with the Czech Philharmonic, Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony, and Michel Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony, who is slated to leave his post in 2020 after 25 seasons.

It might surprise you to know that Orange County has one of the longest-serving conductors of any major North American orchestra. Carl St.Clair took the position in 1990. He’s about to start his 30th season with Pacific Symphony, which is barely over four decades old. (Voice of OC talked to St.Clair earlier this year about his time at Pacific Symphony and his plans for the upcoming season.)

Carl St.Clair’s TEDx Talk on Conducting

St.Clair arrived on the scene at the end of a challenging chapter in the orchestra’s young history. Its founding conductor, Keith Clark, was removed from his position by the board in a close 12-11 vote in early 1988. Whoever was hired to replace him had to heal fresh wounds and inspire the players.

John E. Forsyte, Pacific Symphony’s current president, said when he was hired, he was attracted to the orchestra mainly because of St.Clair’s reputation and his conducting, which he had seen before assuming his present position. But just as impressive, Forsyte said, were St.Clair’s skills as a conciliator and diplomat – qualities that helped get him the job.

“From what I heard, there were a number of things that happened in the audition process that solidified the decision for the musicians and the board. Not only was his audition concert extremely exciting, the wrong Mozart piece was on the stand. He gave he downbeat for ‘Magic Flute’ and they were playing ‘Marriage of Figaro’ or something else.” St.Clair quickly adapted and laughed off the screw-up. “The calm and ease and the personable quality he had was immediately evident,” Forsyte said.

Another incident from St.Clair’s audition also made a big impression. “He was being interviewed by 15 to 20 members of the search committee,” Forsyte said. “Randy Johnson, the chair of the board, said, ‘If you can remember all of our names, you’ve got the job.’ And Carl went around the room and named everybody. His attention to personal interactions really impressed everybody.”

St.Clair also came with some impressive recommendations. He had warm relationships with John Williams and Leonard Bernstein. “There were a number of things that said, ‘This guy is a meteor,’ Forsyte said. “They sensed that he would ignite the passion of the community, and he had the kinds of personality that could heal some of the wounds from the troubling situations that had occurred.”

Other conductors were seriously considered for the position – older, more experienced, better known. But Louis Spisto, the orchestra’s president at the time, knew that it needed a different kind of music director if it was to become a representative voice of the county and find its personality.

“The next chapter was to diversify the repertoire and expand our community engagement programming,” Forsyte said. “One of his great gifts was knowing how to engage his community in all sorts of new ways: contextual programming, recognizing the cultural diversity of our community, putting the composer at the center of the program – things that were a little less common back then. He really had a vision for that.”

Taking advantage of his deep connections within the composing community, especially with his former employer, the University of Michigan School of Music, St.Clair introduced Orange County to a number of dynamic composers, some of them near the beginning of their careers: Philip Glass, William Bolcom, Elliot Goldenthal, Richard Danielpour, Frank Ticheli, Michael Daugherty. The symphony’s American Composers Festival has been going strong since 2000.

St.Clair also expanded the orchestra’s geographical horizons, taking them to Europe in 2006. In 2018, he led Pacific Symphony’s Carnegie Hall debut and then immediately embarked on a tour of China.

An opera initiative, “Symphonic Voices,” will enter its ninth season in 2019-20 with Verdi’s “Otello.” Since the demise of Opera Pacific in 2008, St.Clair and the orchestra have presented slightly staged productions of “Madame Butterfly,” “The Magic Flute,” “Aida,” “Turandot,” “Carmen,” “La Traviata,” “Tosca”and “La Bohème.”

St.Clair has had some setbacks elsewhere. In Europe, his stint as general music director of the Komische Oper Berlin was cut short two years into his six-year contract. He resigned the position in May 2010 after artistic differences erupted with director Benedikt von Peter during rehearsals for an iconoclastic production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”

Forsyte takes issues with the claim by some that St.Clair’s career quieted down after he left his post in Berlin.

“I think it’s true that when he left Berlin he took some time to decide what to do next. But he’s very busy. He has the National Orchestra of Costa Rica. And he just conducted the national orchestras of Colombia and Thailand. He’s conducted in Portugal and with a bunch of Asian orchestras. He’s also in demand as a mentor-conductor.”

In the last decade, St.Clair has concentrated on growing roots in parts of the local community that hadn’t been explored before. He has helped create symphony education programs such as “Classical Connections”, “arts-X–press” and “Class Act.” He’s also on the faculty at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.

“I think the latest chapter of Carl’s career includes the really deepening efforts to build new communities around the orchestra,” Forsyte said. “He wants to welcome new audiences to the concert hall or insist that we go to them and listen carefully to what they want. That’s been a real signature of his.

“For example, when a board member came to him with an idea to engage the Iranian community, he was open to hearing her ideas, and it resulted in a very successful event.” (The symphony celebrated the Iranian New Year festival of Nowruz with a concert in March.) “All of that feeds into a kind of love affair that he developed with the community. And frankly, that’s what keeps him artistically fresh.”

For a list of the full season of concerts offered by Pacific Symphony, go to: pacificsymphony.org

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.