Growing up in Hochheim, Texas, a young Carl St. Clair was once asked by a visiting journalist how many people lived in his town. After pausing for a moment to tally up the population, he replied, "36."
"I could count them all up in my head. Although I think that number may have dropped significantly since then," St. Clair said.
St. Clair is now the music director of the Pacific Symphony, where, at 20 years at the podium, he is the second-longest serving conductor of an American orchestra. During his tenure, the orchestra has toured to other counties, created recordings and propelled music-education programs forward in many Orange County cities.
"[St. Clair] is somebody who has a strong idea of an orchestra's role in the community and ways how the orchestra can remain vibrant and engaging," John Forsyte, president of the Pacific Symphony, said.
The Pacific Symphony makes its home in the Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, where St. Clair can be found not only conducting, but also balancing administrative and community responsibilities with the same gusto he brings to the stage.
His unending love of music began in Hochheim — a small, unassuming town between San Antonio and Houston that sprang up on the junction of U.S. Highway 183 and Texas State Highway 111— with lessons on his aunt's piano when he was 6 years old.
His natural abilities landed him a spot early on in his school band and then a scholarship to the University of Texas. What he learned from his family and music instructors would later be instrumental in the implementation of more than 20 music education programs supported by the Pacific Symphony nationwide.
"I am a product of public school music education. It was a great gift that at fifth and sixth grade that I could already play in an ensemble," St. Clair said, "This is something that is being taken away from many schools today."
St. Clair is responsible for many of the youth and adult programs in Orange County, including Classical Connections, Class-Act and the art immersion program, Art X-press.
"[The Pacific Symphony and I] are just trying to make sure that people have a deeper and more knowledgeable appreciation of the art world," St. Clair said. "I believe that this is part of our responsibility in serving the community."
More than half the audiences that that hear the Pacific Symphony are able to do so for free because of the cumulative successes of the community outreach programs, Forsyte said.
"The story of the Pacific Symphony is almost unprecedented in the United States in how fast and how much it has grown in the community," St Clair said.
The symphony is California's third largest after Los Angeles and San Francisco, and one of the few in the country that celebrates American musicians and composers.
"[St. Clair] is a national figure in championing American music," Forsyte said, "I've heard him say, 'This is the American century, and we should plant the flag of American musicians and composers.'"
Among the well-known American artists whose works have been commissioned by St. Clair include Philip Glass, Michael Daugherty, Frank Ticheli and Richard Danielpour.
Under St. Clair's guidance, the symphony has recently returned from its first European tour of nine cities in three countries, including Germany, where he served as general music director of the Komische Oper Berlin, an opera company.
The symphony has recently been declared a leading orchestra in audience engagement and innovation by the League of American Orchestras. One of St. Clair's goals is using new techniques to reach a more diverse audience.
"We believe that there are people [who] have an inclination to try it, but haven't yet had the chance," Forsyte said, "Part of Carl's role is to remind the people that challenging yourself can be fun. Art has a need to transform, lead and create growth.
"Of course, there's plenty of room in the concert hall for pure entertainment, too. And Carl has been very successful in all that."