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Music : Staples Takes the Lead With Pacific Symphony

October 19, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As new concertmaster of the Pacific Symphony, which opens its 1994-95 season tonight in Costa Mesa, Sheryl Staples will play both Follow the Leader and Lead the Followers.

"There are so many different things that the concertmaster is called on to do," said Staples, 25. "But from the standpoint of interpreting the conductor's gestures, the concertmaster is almost a secondary figure for the orchestra to watch. If there's ever a question in the players' minds about what they're seeing on the podium, it's traditional to look to the concertmaster for some sort of clarity."

Or, in this case, St.Clairity. Music director Carl St.Clair will conduct the world premiere of Frank Ticheli's "Pacific Fanfare," James Hopkins' "Songs of Eternity" and Mozart's Requiem, K. 626. The concerts tonight and Thursday feature soprano Korliss Uecker, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, tenor David Hamilton and bass Brian Matthews as vocal soloists, and the Pacific Chorale.

Staples' appointment came after a yearlong search, but the orchestra didn't have to look very far. Staples has a high profile in Southern California, having served as concertmaster for the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, Japan America Symphony, USC Symphony Orchestra and Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra.

And, she noted, "I had a history with the Pacific Symphony that brings things full circle": Staples was the 19-year-old soloist in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in 1988 at the orchestra's summer "Tchaikovsky Spectacular."

Her new job with the Pacific won't put an end to her solo and chamber-music careers. (She appears regularly at the La Jolla and Santa Fe chamber-music festivals.) "The Pacific Symphony has about 20 weeks of performing during the season," Staples said. "That's a nice amount for me. If I were joining a full-time orchestra, it would limit all that."

*

It might also limit her teaching activities. Staples is one of the youngest faculty members at USC, where she earned her Artist Diploma, and at the nearby R.D. Colburn School of Performing Arts, which she attended as a W.M. Keck Scholar.

She doesn't expect her age to be a problem in her new capacity at the Pacific Symphony.

"I just attempt to be as professional as I can and do my job," Staples said. "Usually that, and a little bit of time, has earned the respect of any people initially not comfortable with a younger person sitting in front of them in the section.

"You could ask the same question about being a woman," she pointed out. "I realize times are different now than 50 years ago, but I approach it the same way, as a non-issue, and it's never caused a problem for me. If I went into rehearsal in shorts and a tank top and my hair up in a ponytail, that would draw attention to it--that would not go over so well."

The nature of the selection process might also help ensure Staples' acceptance among her peers. She was chosen from among nine finalists, each of whom had served as guest concertmaster last season.

"An audition for any other position in the orchestra takes place behind a screen; it's completely anonymous," she explained. "In the case of concertmaster, the music director already has people in mind, and they're invited to audition.

"Players usually either have that kind of leadership role in mind or not," she continued. "Not everybody wants to be leading. Not everybody wants to be a business executive. There's a lot of pride just to be playing well. . . . To my knowledge, nobody in the orchestra was trying out for that position."

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Staples studied violin from the age of 9 with Robert Lipsett; she singles out Jascha Heifetz as a role model. "He's just king of the violin as far as I'm concerned," she said.

Now, for part of the year at least, she'll take her cue from St.Clair. She was flattered by recent comments the conductor made, in which he cited "a very strong musical connection" with her.

"I've described the relationship . . . as something like a conversation," Staples said. "If you are in a conversation, you can tell very quickly if you're on the same wavelength. You sit down with someone you don't know, either things are clicking or they're not."

* Carl St.Clair leads the Pacific Symphony in works by Mozart, James Hopkins and Frank Ticheli tonight and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $14-$41. Student/senior rush, $8. (714) 755-5799 or (714) 740-2000 ( Ticketmaster).

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