Carl St.Clair celebrates two decades with Pacific Symphony

Carl St.Clair leaned casually on a black concert grand piano, microphone dangling from one hand, as if he were Harry Connick Jr. or Barry Manilow, holding forth cozily for the fans.

And why not be at ease? This was his night, a special concert two weeks ago, celebrating his 20 years as music director of the Pacific Symphony that sat behind him. And this was his place, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, which opened four years ago to give classical performers, not least the resident orchestra he leads, a chance to sound their best.

The festivities had included board chair Sally Anderson delivering a long list of laudatory descriptives ending in “down to earth.” But St.Clair, who grew up on a cotton farm in a South Texas hamlet of 35 souls and who never saw an orchestra until he found himself playing the trumpet in one at 17, can reach for the lofty and the profound in his public appearances.

“I’d like you to make a solemn promise to never let the sound of this orchestra be silenced,” he said, before asking for a moment of stillness for listeners to take in silence and remember the people in their lives who had first opened their ears to classical music.

A few days later, on a perfect morning in Laguna Beach, where he lives with his wife, Susan, and their son and daughter, ages 8 and 9, St.Clair said that the bad economy and the havoc it can wreak in the arts — notably the collapse of Opera Pacific 18 months ago — had something to do with his having struck that urgent note at the concert, and in a dinner right before it during which he reminded orchestra donors, “We have the opportunity to lay the cornerstone for an institution that’s going to represent the arts in Orange County throughout the 21st century. That’s not only an opportunity but an incredible responsibility.”

As fortune would have it, his gala followed a dark career moment when, he admits, he failed to carry out a solemn duty of his own — to none other than Ludwig van Beethoven.

Little more than a week before his anniversary concert, the announcement had come from Berlin that St.Clair was resigning his other conducting gig, as music director of the Komische Oper, less than two years into a six-year contract with the company.

Although Komische Oper is famed for giving opera directors great interpretive license, St.Clair never anticipated that would mean conducting a “Fidelio” without an overture. Benedikt von Peter’s production had cut it and substituted a clangorous nonmusical opening.

“No overture, nowhere,” wrote the reviewer from the Frankfurter Rundschau, a daily newspaper in Frankfurt. “Instead, the noisy aura of drills, screwdrivers and buzz saws. A theater is being taken down, disposed of in the garbage.”

“I felt ashamed,” said St.Clair, who will be 58 on Saturday. “It was a line I had crossed that made me feel uneasy and in some ways dishonest. I had allowed things to happen that went against the mission of a conductor, which is to be a spokesperson for the composer.”

Frank Ticheli, a composer and USC faculty member who has known St.Clair more than 25 years, said that, although the “Fidelio” fiasco prompted his friend to resign, the decision frees him from the stress of trying to orchestrate family life on two continents: “Two houses, two sets of schools, two of everything — that’s pretty tough for a family, and I think that played into it.”

St.Clair is experienced at turning discordant notes in his favor — including the first ones he ever elicited from the Pacific Symphony in January 1990, when he’d been invited to audition for the vacant conductor’s job.

He began his first rehearsal by signaling the initial chord of Mozart’s overture to “The Magic Flute.” But the orchestra had been given the wrong Mozart overture, and what came out, confusedly, were the first strains of “The Marriage of Figaro.”

St.Clair went with the flow — first telling the mortified orchestra librarian to address him as “Carl,” not “Mr. St.Clair” or “maestro,” and then proceeding to conduct from memory the music the players had in front of them. “Figaro” stayed in the program, and two decades later St.Clair and the Pacific would open his 20th anniversary concert with it.

“It was one of those defining moments,” recalled violist Bob Becker, a Pacific Symphony member since 1982. It meant that, with St.Clair, “in moments of stress, no, we’re not going to scream and holler and throw things. We’re just going to work through it.’”

That sense of “we” never stood conductor and orchestra in better stead, Becker says, than in August 1999, when he returned to the rehearsal room a month after his 18-month-old son, Cole, had drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool while Susan St.Clair suffered a diabetic seizure that kept her from coming to the boy’s rescue. St.Clair shared his emotions with his musicians. “Our job was to be supportive and let him show us how,” Becker said. “He did, and that, to me, was incredible leadership.”

Under St.Clair, the Pacific has had a consistent commitment to performing and commissioning new music, especially from American composers. Working with living composers, he said, “is the closest thing I’m going to get to knowing Beethoven.”

In 2000, he launched the American Composers Festival, an annual highlight. Next year’s festival features works by Philip Glass. Mexican composers and the Asian influence on contemporary music have been past focuses.

Playing new music hasn’t stunted the Pacific’s growth. Even amid the economic downturn it has managed a steady paid attendance of about 150,000 a year.

An oft-stated goal during St.Clair’s tenure has been winning national recognition for the Pacific Symphony as a “major orchestra,” even though its budget, which peaked at $16.3 million before the recession, is about half that of the Pittsburgh and Detroit symphonies. Its musicians are not salaried but earn fees for each performance or rehearsal.

St.Clair said the Pacific’s model works because Southern California is rich in studio work and other gigs for talented pros; living in such a musical ecosphere, he says, breeds players who are unusually quick, versatile and adaptable. For the organization, it means resources can stretch further in a time of economic stress.

Ticheli said he never has heard St.Clair complain about being passed over when large American orchestras have openings.

Being valued by a community and making a difference in people’s lives, St.Clair said, “is more of a watermark and litmus test as to success than how much neon there is in one’s career.”

He won’t speculate what will happen after 2012, when his contract with the Pacific Symphony expires, but he can’t foresee ever losing his connection to Orange County and its orchestra. “This is where I’m going to be buried, it’s where my son is buried. This is always going to be our home.”