Classically Trained: It's more than just waving a stick

The Pacific Symphony accomplished more than just making music at Monday night's "OC Can You Play With Us?"

The free event in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall put local amateur musicians onstage alongside the professional Pacific Symphony ranks. No audition was required. The players filled out an application, polished (or dusted off) their instruments and went on the shiny Costa Mesa stage.

On everyone's stands were a few sections of "Pictures at an Exhibition," the Ravel-orchestrated Mussorgsky masterpiece the orchestra played last October. Pacific Symphony music director Carl St.Clair commanded from the podium.

But it was St.Clair's guidance on center stage that made the event the most educational for the orchestrally uneducated. He showed his instrumental (pun intended) role on what a conductor really does. Time and time again, I see that role being a big mystery to most.

"He just waves his stick around!" the disbelievers proclaim to me. "Does it matter what he's doing?"

"The orchestra isn't even looking at him," still others scoff. "He's just putting on a show."

In response I attempt to clarify that a conductor more than just waves a baton (the formal name for that stick of his). And, as St.Clair demonstrated at "OC Can You Play With Us?", the conductor often shines most brightly in rehearsal.

St.Clair enthusiastically led the large ensemble and focused on the same basics of music he does for the pros: dynamics, articulation styles, note lengths, instrumental balance, phrasing.

With a live mic attached to him, St.Clair's grunts to the music's beat — not an all-too-uncommon, seemingly animalistic response conductors have when conducting — could be heard.

He told the timpani not to play exactly to his beat, else he be behind it. He told the strings to "disappear" their notes as they decrescendo. He implored the brass to settle down, to balance better, to make the Great Gate of Kiev greater.

"I'm an old cowhand," St.Clair said, alluding to his small-town Texas upbringing. "But I'm also an old brass player."

That little snippet was just one of many he used to relate to his players, to get them in synch with the sound's whole and excited about the music.

Like any good leader, the conductor sets the tone and the mood, bringing together the disparate elements to make them one. Come showtime, hopefully that effort leads to a successful performance.

But calling a conductor some glorified stick-waver? Blasphemous!

It's like calling a newspaper editor useless because he's not the one writing the stories. Or the football coach pointless because he doesn't execute the plays.

St.Clair's actions are enough to break a sweat. Seriously. Post-concert, sometimes conductors like St. Clair look like they just finished the Boston Marathon.

If you don't believe me, check out YouTube videos of the greats — Leonard Bernstein, for example. Take heed at his crying on the job while conducting some emotional Mahler. You'll see dripping eyes and a perspiring forehead.

I hope all that I've just highlighted about the conductor's role was answered for what was probably a crowd of many orchestral newbies in the house Monday.

I surmised that after St.Clair asked the audience members to raise their hands if it was their first time to the concert hall. Most hands went up.

Judging by the good playing all around, seeing an effective conductor lead and being in the beauty of O.C.'s grand hall, I hope that those hands' owners will be back again. And again.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at bradley.zint@latimes.com.

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