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Carl St.Clair celebrates two decades with Pacific Symphony

The conductor's commitment to excellence and the orchestra's pay model help maintain high standards in hard economic times.

June 03, 2010|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times

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."

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