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Conductor Carl St.Clair celebrates 20 years home on the range with Pacific Symphony

June 2, 2010 |  5:04 pm

CarlStClairBoster Carl St.Clair recalls sitting in a living room in Lenox, Mass., 25 years ago and hearing Leonard Bernstein, the definitive American conductor of the 20th century, pose a not-quite-musical question to the students assembled for the conducting seminar he taught annually at Tanglewood in memory of his mentor, Serge Koussevitzky.

"Where is my cowboy from Texas?"

That would have been St.Clair. He grew up on a cotton farm in Hochheim, population about 35, and remains unusual among his peers. How many of them had driven tractors and quarterbacked their high school football team before they'd attended their first orchestral concert?

By the time he came under Bernstein's tutelage, St.Clair was teaching conducting himself as a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, while leading a new music ensemble that enabled him to get hands-on experience working with such visiting eminences as composer Elliott Carter. 

Now he is looking back on 20 years as music director of the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa. He landed the post after his studies with Bernstein had paved the way for a four-year tenure as associate conductor of the Boston Symphony. John Williams, then conductor of the Boston Pops, was the first to tip St.Clair off about the vacancy at the Pacific. "He said, 'Carl, I just conducted an orchestra in Orange County, Calif., that's just fantastic,' " St.Clair recalls. " 'They need to know about you, and you need to know about them.' "

LeonardBernsteinEricAuerbachGettyImages Six months after the announcement that he had won a nine-man competition to lead the Pacific Symphony, St.Clair found himself in a cowboy's role after all, riding shotgun for Bernstein at Tanglewood on Aug. 19, 1990, a day when the great man, weakened by lung disease, turned over the baton to his protege for "Arias and Barcarolles," which Bernstein had composed two years before. Bernstein needed to save all his strength to lead Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, in a performance described by Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer: "At one point in the scherzo, after a coughing spell, he leaned on the rail for support.... In one respect it was terrifying, in another wonderful; the human spirit in extremis does not trifle with things.... We had the painful privilege of witnessing a victory, and its cost."

Months later, on Oct. 9, St.Clair made his debut as music director of the Pacific Symphony. Five days later, Bernstein died of heart failure at 72.

This month St.Clair will finish his 20th season with the Pacific Symphony. Click here for the full story on the maestro who has spent 20 years insisting that people not call him "maestro" or "Mr. St.Clair," since he'd rather be just Carl.

His mentor, after all, was known to most as Lenny, although St.Clair refers to him as "Mr. B."

— Mike Boehm


Music Review: Tchaikovsky's  `Pathetique' Symphony `unwound' by Pacific Symphony

Symphony leader St.Clair must now emulate St. Bernstein

Top photo: Carl St.Claire. Photo credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times.

Bottom photo: Leonard Bernstein. Photo credit: Erich Aeurbach / Getty Images.