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Making Waves

In his 24th season with the Pacific Symphony, maestro Carl St.Clair keeps riding the rhythms of his musical passion.

Conductor extraordinaire Carl St.Clair

St.Clair leads the Pacific Symphony.


Pacific Symphony ( Music Director Carl St.Clair marches to the beat of a different drum, one that’s helped him continue to lead the nationally renowned orchestra into new territory—even after 24 seasons. And this month’s Wavelength Festival of Music at the Pacific Amphitheatre is among the nonprofit organization’s most boundary-pushing efforts yet. Beginning Aug. 22, the fest will team the orchestra with contemporary talents through four nights of music, and will culminate in a tribute to Pink Floyd. Here, the Texas-born St.Clair shares more about how he became a maestro, and we couldn’t help but listen.

As a kid on the farm in south Texas, how did you get into music?
When I was 6, my mother had promised me the greatest gift ever. And I’m looking around the house for this greatest gift ever. And I’m not seeing it. We lived out in the country so it wasn’t like you could just hide it anywhere. It came the morning of my birthday, and my mother informed me that my greatest gift ever was going to be piano lessons. It made quite a dark impression on me. It was not what I expected at all. It took a number of years before I realized that it was the greatest gift.

You don’t seem to have a lot of ego like many people think conductors have.
Though I must have an ego, I have a family structure and a lot of people who keep me in check. My life motto is pretty simple: Just be honest, work hard, keep faithful and remain humble. Good simple rules I live my life by.

How has the symphony stayed relevant?
We ask ourselves [that] all the time. It used to be that cultural transitioning took place in someone’s 40s, where everything starts changing: the restaurants you eat at, where you shop. And then instead of going to the cinema, you take in a musical or a symphony. In the afternoon of your life, you go to different kinds of cultural events. Today, people aren’t transitioning into our world as fluidly as they once did. They didn’t grow up hearing Leonard Bernstein on TV. We are constantly trying to give people the opportunity to grow up with us. That’s why we have a wide range of offerings that go from the very young to the mature adult.

And you’ve been around long enough to see the Pac Symph’s programs pay off.
It’s been a great honor to have this kind of tenure. Orchestras don’t grow in five years. They grow over a longer period of time. I’ve always said that this orchestra needs to grow like an oak tree, not a fast-growing plant. We need to be conscious of what roots we are making. We’ve had to become important in our community’s cultural life. And it’s not done with one concert, but over decades of continually better performances that are more and more impactful.

How do you keep yourself fresh 24 years into this gig?
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I never had the Pacific Symphony as my only job. Throughout my whole tenure, I’ve had other positions, most of them in Europe. For instance, when I was conducting one of the newest symphonies in America, I was [also] conducting one of the oldest orchestras [the German National Theater and Staatskapelle (GNTS) in Weimar]. Being the first non-European director of that orchestra is an incredible endorsement and gives you a confidence that you can’t have just living in Southern California. So when I’ve done a Brahms requiem in a cathedral in Europe, then come and do it here, I stand in front of the Pacific Symphony and in front of this audience in O.C. to bring them something that I, if I had stayed [here], couldn’t have given them. It’s one of the most important reasons my relationship with these wonderful musicians has continued to remain positive.

Who’s better, American or European musicians?
That’s impossible to say. I’ve conducted Tchaikovsky’s last symphony—a passionate piece written just before he died—in Damascus. I’ve done it in Europe. I’ve done it across America. And I’ve done it in Beijing in the concert hall inside the Forbidden City. What I realized was that the emotional content of the music spoke to each musician and audience—with very different cultures—in the same way. We always say that music is the universal language. I really experienced that universality—it didn’t matter where they were from or if one orchestra played it a little better or worse. It shows that music for music’s sake is not the reason that it’s gracing our presence. It has a much deeper meaning. Frankly, this is what we are trying to do with the Pacific Symphony. The music we are performing, the way we are presenting it, to whom and in what manner—it’s hopefully not just a musical experience, but a collective experience between the audience and orchestra. We are your orchestra; you are our audience. We are a family.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself when you first took over the symphony 24 years ago?
Follow your heart. I’m a follower of instinct rather than a planner of destination. You asked about this kid in south Texas. I mean, think of this 6-year-old boy in this town of 36 people, with his mother telling him he was going to have piano lessons. He keeps following this voice, this calling. Then, somehow or another, on August 19, 1990, he ends up on a podium conducting the Boston Symphony premiering Bernstein’s last work on a program with Bernstein conducting, and it ends up being the last concert of his life. I mean, how do you plan that out? How do you wish that to happen? You don’t.