Symphony Leader St. Clair Must Now Emulate St. Bernstein

After two years, the search is over. With the appointment this week of Carl St. Clair as music director for the Pacific Symphony, the orchestra's weary search committee can finally relax. Executive director Louis G. Spisto can relax. The board of directors can relax.

Everyone can relax--except, of course, St. Clair, whose job has just begun. And it's going to be a challenging one, for it encompasses more than just eliciting beautiful music from the orchestra. It even encompasses more than trying to forge an identity for the Pacific in an age of sound-alike symphonic groups.

St. Clair will also be contending with the Leonard Bernstein Syndrome. A music director can't simply be a competent leader in his profession; he is also expected to project himself to the public as one swell, charismatic, Bernstein-like guy.

From what we've seen of St. Clair so far, there's every indication he'll be just such a swell, charismatic guy. Good thing, too, because like it or not, part of the job of the modern American music director is to give the public a living, breathing, walking, talking, charming, swell, charismatic embodiment of his orchestra.

Conditioned by decades of slick marketing and advertising campaigns, we consumers now expect all entities to project a personality: Chrysler isn't a monolithic corporate monster--it's friendly Lee Iacocca. Great Western Bank isn't a faceless financial institution--it's folksy Dennis Weaver. Carl's Jr. isn't a spawning stream for aspiring franchisees--it's grinning Carl Karcher.

And so, the young, ambitious Pacific Symphony will be personified by the young, ambitious Carl St. Clair. As such, he'll be expected by the orchestra's board to go out into the community and help win support--read: money--for the organization.

Much of the American public's infatuation with the conductor as a Great Communicator can be traced to Bernstein, who built his reputation in the '50s at the same time that television was becoming a household necessity. As the outgoing, informed and articulate focal point of the New York Philharmonic's regularly televised Young People's Concerts, Bernstein became for millions of viewers the archetype of the American conductor that still permeates our culture.

"There's no question about it--that's an important part of why Bernstein has been so successfully received," said Donald Thulean, director of orchestra services for the Washington-based American Symphony Orchestra League, which represents about 800 orchestras throughout North America. "On the other hand, a lot of people came to think that a conductor has to be a Bernstein to be successful. And, of course, there's only one Bernstein."

Indeed, while evaluating candidates, the Pacific Symphony's search committee had to keep in mind the public's expectations of what a conductor is supposed to be. "We were always thinking about which candidate would appeal to the Orange County audience," said board member Preston Stedman, head of the search committee. "The audience here has a certain (read: less than fully cosmopolitan) level of sophistication to be considered. . . . You're always trying to match product with the market, and the (public's) perception of what a conductor is is important."

That's why a number of extra-musical factors figured into the search, including how much time candidates would be able to spend in Orange County meeting with the community (read: potential donors and subscribers) and how they could help establish the Pacific Symphony as an important component of the county's cultural life. "For the Pacific Symphony, it will be critical for the music director to communicate the goals of the orchestra to a diverse group of people," Spisto said recently. "One aspect of the job is going to be presenting this organization to the community: 'This is the Pacific Symphony, this is what classical music is all about and this is why you should join us.' "

One local newspaper went so far as to actually rate each conductor on his social graces, with a chart that came complete with a drawing of a martini glass. It's too bad that it's simply not enough in some people's eyes for a music director just to make great music. And by many accounts, the Pacific is capable of greatness. Conductor Lawrence Foster, who had been a candidate for the job St. Clair got, recently said that "to make this orchestra into one of the greatest in the country is not that great a task. You are starting on a very high level" of musical talent.

Foster said this after the orchestra rescinded a contract offer to him, over issues of money and those aforementioned time commitments, so he can't be accused of saying it just to win points with the search committee. Even after finishing among the also-rans, Foster sounded genuinely enamored of the orchestra's potential, which now falls to St. Clair both to realize and to help sell.

It's a different story across the Atlantic. In Europe, it's far more common that the conductor's duties are limited to selecting music, rehearsing and leading concerts and, perhaps, choosing guest artists. The promotional aspects are handled by the marketing department or an administrative music director who may not even be a musician.

That may stem from several things: Europe's longer history of cultural awareness and support; the fact that governments there tend to subsidize their arts groups to a far greater degree than we do. Because orchestras aren't clawing for public dollars, they are less inclined to send the conductor out to beat the drum.

"A lot of Europeans don't like socializing, partying, talking money or talking nice to people who might give the orchestra money," said Jenny Vogel, vice president at New York-based ICM Artists Ltd., which represents dozens of conductors.

"It's not part of their background," she said, pointing to the example of Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, recently named music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "He doesn't like being in big crowds or having to address people. But he has a natural, easy charm that people appreciate, and that comes across in those groups," Vogel said. "But it can be a real problem if the music director doesn't like to do it."

While many veterans in the field admit that such non-musical duties are now an integral part of the music director's job, they also acknowledge that these aspects are rarely, if ever, addressed in conductor school.

So when St. Clair takes over the reins of the Pacific Symphony next season, let's, as his audience, not be obsessed with how good he looks in his tuxedo, how artfully he delivers pre-concert lectures, or how gracefully he fits in at the post-concert receptions. And maybe, just maybe, in that way we'll find a smidgen of that cultural maturity we've all been lobbying for.

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