Carl St.Clair, the music director of Pacific Symphony, will leave his longtime post, probably at the end of the 2023-24 season. The announcement, made today, mentions the option of a  further contract extension if necessary while a suitable successor is found for the position. St.Clair will continue his association with the symphony, although the nature of the relationship was not disclosed. 

St.Clair, who turned 70 in June, requested that the symphony’s board begin plans for succession that assured continuity of leadership. “The musicians of Pacific Symphony and I have shared an extraordinary 33-year journey, and I am honored that the board has extended my contract for two seasons, and that I will remain music director through 2023-24, if not longer,” St.Clair said.

Born in Hochheim, Texas, St.Clair attended the University of Texas and studied conducting with Gustav Meier at the University of Michigan and Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. He was music director of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 1992 and held a teaching position at the University of Michigan at that time. In 1986, he became an assistant conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

In January 1990, St.Clair conducted the Pacific Symphony for the first time. The orchestra was conducting a search for a successor to its founding music director, Keith Clark, and St.Clair was chosen for the position over a number of more prominent and experienced conductors.

St.Clair brought a higher profile and a succession of achievements to the orchestra. Commissioned works include Richard Danielpour’s “An American Requiem” and Elliot Goldenthal’s “Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio” with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The orchestra and St.Clair host an annual festival of American composers. They performed in China and at Carnegie Hall in 2018.

The orchestra made its national PBS debut in June 2018 on “Great Performances” with Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America,” conducted by St.Clair. The orchestra’s opera initiative, “Symphonic Voices,” has presented concert-opera productions of “Madame Butterfly,” “The Magic Flute,” “Aida,” “Turandot,” “Carmen,” “La Traviata,” “Tosca” and “La Bohème.”

St.Clair has also enjoyed an active career in Europe. He was the principal guest conductor of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart from 1998 to 2004. He became Generalmusikdirektor of the Staatskapelle Weimar in 2005, a post he held for three years. In 2008 he was appointed Generalmusikdirektor of the Komische Oper Berlin, but in May 2010 he resigned in a dispute over a stage director’s interpretation of Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” In 2012, St.Clair was appointed principal conductor and artistic leader of the Thornton Symphony Orchestra at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.

“I am so grateful to Carl for remaining committed to Pacific Symphony. As visionary and orchestra builder, Carl has possessed a singular commitment to Orange County. He has a deep love for the musicians with whom he has collaborated,” said Pacific Symphony President and CEO John Forsyte. “Of course, this is a point of great emotion for all of us who love Carl’s work. We know that Carl will have a significant role with Pacific Symphony for the foreseeable future.”

Carl St.Clair, center, takes a bow with the Pacific Symphony. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

In an interview Monday with Voice of OC, St.Clair emphasized his relationship with the symphony would continue after his current contract ends, and he’s focused on helping make the transition as smooth as possible.

“I will be music director until I transition into a laureate position. I want to make that clear. I will be continuing my relationship with (the orchestra).  I’m doing this so that we can have a beautiful transition, so the Pacific Symphony doesn’t lose anything. What often happens is that transitions of this type can really take a toll on an orchestra. I’m trying to avoid all that.”

St.Clair said he expects to continue to enjoy a close and warm association with the symphony. “My relationship with the musicians, the board, the community has remained positive. Our recent concert was just dynamite. We’re still making music together in a very passionate, committed way, which I’m very thankful for.”

St.Clair said he has no plans to move, even after his present contract with the symphony ends.

“I spoke yesterday to the board and had a wonderful talk with the orchestra last night. I told them how this community and the family of the Pacific Symphony has embraced me and my family through all of our darkest moments and some of our happiest moments, and we thank everybody. Orange County is my home. It’s where I’m going to lie in rest. This is it. We love the town where we live, Laguna Beach, we love Orange County, and we love the Pacific Symphony.”

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

Classical music coverage at Voice of OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Voice of OC makes all editorial decisions.

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