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St. Clair conducts the orchestra, his wife handles the checkbook

Carl St. Clair In a field well-known by the public to be occupied by dynamos -- think of the old Bugs-Bunny-as-conductor cartoon -- American conductor Carl St. Clair is especially charismatic. He has earned an international following and affected the course of classical music for generations to come. In his position as music director of Orange County's Pacific Symphony, St. Clair has guided the symphony to prominence through award-winning recordings, commissions of new works, world premieres, live broadcasts and an array of music education programs.

In addition to his orchestral work, St. Clair is also sought after as an opera conductor. St. Clair has led the Austin Lyric Opera. He made his Opera Pacific debut conducting Mozart's "The Magic Flute." He has also been guest conductor of the opera house in Bonn, Germany and the Staatstheater in Hanover.

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Bankrate: You have spotlighted in your career the works of living composers. Do you think it's part of your makeup to want to forge your own way in the field of music?

Carl St. Clair: I think that what happened in the mid-20th century is that classical music was redefined. In the previous century, the conductors had been of European descent, with only some speaking English, and they were more autocratic. Leonard Bernstein is the one who redefined the role of the conductor. He redefined what a community could expect out of its conductor. One of the ways he did this was through education. He had his Young People's Concerts on prime-time television, which is really incredible when you think about it. I mean, we're on at 2 a.m. on some arts cable channel that you have to pay extra to see! Also, Bernstein, along with George Szell of Cleveland, opened the way to living composers. I never wanted to work in a museum, playing just the old master works. I wanted to forge forward and increase the works played in the concert halls. I am lucky, I have longtime friends who are composers; they are just now becoming infamous!

Bankrate: The Pacific Symphony operates on a per-service model, paying for each rehearsal and concert. While there are many pros to this: flexible budget, new creative talent and presumably no deadweights, you have cons in the lack of continuity and extra training and audition time. Would you speak to these issues?

Carl St. Clair: Our players are non-tenured. Our fair trade agreement gives them the same rights, though. It's incorrect to think of Pacific Symphony Orchestra as a freelance orchestra. The contract gives us financial freedom. If we're doing a piece that calls for a chamber orchestra, we don't have to pay for the full orchestra. The musicians supplement their income with teaching, chamber music, Hollywood studio work.

Bankrate: PSO is also hired as an ensemble for other work, such as being the pit orchestra for your local dance and opera reps. This creates almost a full-time position for the benefit of those players who may need it. How did this come about?

Carl St. Clair: In 2000, our board of directors adopted a very interesting model. They decided it was not in our best interest to be like the Chicago Symphony. We decided to blend three factions: one, the great 18th and 19th century orchestral traditions. You know, the Vienna Philharmonic tours and records, but they are really the resident orchestra for the opera house! Second, the Birmingham Symphony. It's in an industrial town in England that had this cultural surge. They did a lot of interesting programming, really putting itself on the map. Third, virtuosity versatility. Our players can go from playing Hollywood studio music to Mahler, to accompanying the Oak Ridge Boys, to a family concert, to the Three Jewish Tenors, to accompanying the Bolshoi Ballet, to a Ray Charles concert. In the future, other orchestras will probably follow our model.

 

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-- Posted: April 20, 2004
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