By Peter Lefevre
A quarter-century ago—before hybrid cars, DVDs and Google—Carl St.Clair raised his baton in front of Pacific Symphony for the first time. One of the, if not the, longest-tenured music directors in America, St.Clair celebrates his silver anniversary with the orchestra during 2014-15 with a “Season of Giants,” featuring a high-wattage roster of classical music luminaries.
St.Clair is happy keeping the spotlight on them, however. Self-effacing and intensely focused on the music, he, more than anyone, is aware of the collaborative and communal nature of his work.
“The whole 25th anniversary, for me, is a way to say, ‘thank you,’” he says. “More than celebrating me, it’s an opportunity to recognize the composers, conductors, works, soloists and the community; all those that stood beside me these years at Pacific Symphony, and before I came to Orange County in 1990.”
This upcoming season deeply reflects St.Clair’s personal vision and experience; the works have been chosen as milestones of his creative development, the soloists representing some of the friendships he’s forged over his years at the Symphony’s helm.
“The musical world gets smaller as you get older,” he says. “You know people whom know people, someone who you worked with or went to school with is now in an orchestra or is a great soloist. You work with a soloist and become friends, and the chemistry is so powerful you’re compelled to make music with them as often as possible. They’re musical spirits you feel particularly drawn to. It’s exhilarating.”
The exhilaration begins this week, with a concert featuring Joshua Bell in the Glazunov violin concerto, along with carefully selected works that set the tone for the biographical season ahead. The first notes of the season come from John Williams’ Sound the Bells. This occasion marks Bell’s fifth performance with the Symphony, having previously visited in 1991, 2001, 2005 and 2010 (for St.Clair’s 20th anniversary).
“I’m really thankful Josh Bell, one of the greatest violinists, made the time to come and share the first concert with us,” he says. “I welcome every opportunity to perform with him. He’s incredibly enlightening and musically rewarding for both orchestra and audience.
“Williams, of course, was the music director of the Boston Pops when I was assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony. John introduced me to Pacific Symphony. He’d just conducted here, and came back to Boston in 1989 and told me there’s this fantastic orchestra on the West coast, looking for a music director. You should know about them and they should know about you. It’s important to acknowledge that John was the primary catalyst for me being here.”
The program also features the West coast premiere of Supplica from Christopher Rouse, who St.Clair met at the University of Michigan and first guided St.Clair through the world of living American composers.
“During my tenure at Pacific Symphony, we’ve had composers-in-residence, commissions, recordings of 20th and 21st century pieces. It’s an important part of my directorship, so I’m happy to have Chris represented. Having a work of his is of particular significance to me.”
It would be impossible to honor St.Clair’s tenure without paying tribute to his mentor and friend Leonard Bernstein. The Jan. 29-31 concerts see entire evenings devoted to Bernstein’s work, highlighted by appearances from Dawn Upshaw, Benjamin Pasternack and Bernstein’s daughter Jamie.
“Dawn Upshaw sang at Mr. B’s 70th birthday party and played an important role in it. I know how much he appreciated her and I know how much I’ve loved working with her before.
“There are so many people who have been part of Pacific Symphony for so many years and so many ways. Ben Pasternack, Alain Lefèvre. Alain performed as soloist on the first CD we recorded with me as music director, featuring John Corigliano’s concerto for Piano and orchestra. Ben is someone I’ve performed more with than any other soloist. He was a student of Rudolf Serkin, and his work fits us like a glove.”
The season also features several new works, commissions and world premieres from names familiar to Orange County listeners. There’s a commissioned work from Laura Karpman, and world premieres of James newton Howard’s violin concerto and Narong Prangcharoen’s Illuminating Journey. This year’s American composer’s Festival (ACF) pays tribute to André Previn, a longtime supporter of St.Clair. “It’s an honor that we have such a musician as Previn as featured composer for the ACF,” he says, “plus Deborah Voigt, an orange county local, and Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. I’m so fortunate to know them, and even more fortunate that they’d take the time to play with us. My life winds its way through the whole season. Every nook and cranny in the season has some connection. Nothing is by happenstance. There’s nothing that’s not in its place.”