Back in the mid-1980s, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra (as it was then known) was well on its way to becoming a major ensemble — an extraordinary achievement for a group that had played its first concert only a few years before, in December of 1979, as the Pacific Chamber Orchestra.
Under its energetic and ambitious music director, California State University Fullerton music professor Keith Clark, the cobbled-together group, working under per-service contracts, showed an impressive level of skill and flexibility. Many of its members were successful freelance musicians who made much of their income in Southern California’s film, TV and recording industries. They were supplemented by talented younger musicians, most of them recent graduates of music departments at CSUF and other local universities.
“At the very beginning, Keith Clark was our professor of music at Cal State Fullerton,” said flute and piccolo player Cynthia Ellis, who has been with the orchestra since its founding. “I was a student there, and when the orchestra started, there were student fellowship positions that came into being. I auditioned and won a position.”
By 1981, the ensemble had changed its name to Pacific Symphony Orchestra, reflecting its larger size. It also switched venues, moving from Fullerton’s Plummer Auditorium (now known as the Fullerton Auditorium) to Knott's Berry Farm’s Good Time Theatre, and amassed a fanbase of 3,000.
The group moved again in 1983 to the Santa Ana High School auditorium, began making recordings, hired a full-time manager, and performed for the first time at the Los Angeles Music Center as part of the city’s bicentennial celebrations.
In September 1986, the PSO became the resident orchestra at the new 3,000-seat Orange County Performing Arts Center (now the Segerstrom Center for the Arts), and in 1987 it presented its first Summer Festival at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, one of the county’s largest outdoor venues at the time.
It was a heady inaugural decade marked by extraordinary growth and steadily improving quality. And it was perhaps inevitable that as the orchestra grew, it would need a new leader that reflected its heightened status.
John Evans joined the orchestra’s board of directors at that crucial juncture. The Utah-born banking executive moved to Orange County in 1986 and attended his first board meeting as a member on Jan. 26, 1987. Evans had previously served on the board of directors and the executive committee of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, which at the time was larger than the PSO. Evans served two terms as Pacific Symphony’s board chairman, stepping aside for the last time earlier this year.
Evans recalls enjoying cordial relations with Clark, but he soon became aware of growing tensions within the organization concerning the conductor’s future with the orchestra.
“Keith was one of the people that was very warm to me when I came onto the board, and really welcomed me. And we had a very nice relationship. But as … the board (started) thinking about the future of the symphony and going in another direction, that's when things (became) difficult.”
Clark clashed with some of the board members, and he didn’t see eye to eye with the group’s administrators either. The orchestra quickly cycled through three executive directors in the early-to-mid ‘80s, all of them staying in the position only briefly. Evans remembers it as a fraught time. “I was the president of the board, so I was trying to balance everything and trying to stay as neutral as I could, and listen to people without making things more emotional.”
The board was wrestling with other problems as well. The orchestra’s move to the new performing arts center had vastly increased its potential audience, but also doubled its budget. Financial troubles ensued, exacerbated by a loss of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The orchestra hired a new executive director, Louis Spisto, in June 1987. Clark and Spisto soon locked horns. The maestro’s position wasn’t helped by negative press from critics.
“Clark's performances sounded more like readings than interpretations, and sometimes bad readings, such as his Oct. 2, 1986 opening concert in the (Segerstrom) Center, which was drubbed by critics,” wrote music critic James Chute in The Orange County Register on Jan. 28, 1988. “The opposition to Clark within the orchestra, according to musicians, has been vociferous but only talked about privately. Most musicians, essentially employed at Clark's pleasure, have no job security in the Pacific Symphony and those who invoked his displeasure have, according to musicians, been pulled arbitrarily from concerts.”
Other members of the orchestra, particularly those who benefitted from Clark’s tutelage, had mixed feelings about the situation.
“It was difficult because of our love for him and our appreciation for what he'd done,” said Tony Ellis, Cynthia’s husband and a trumpet player with the orchestra since 1984. Like his wife, Tony Ellis had gone directly from the music program at CSUF to a coveted position in the PSO. “Musically, I kind of understood why we were making that change in the orchestra, and I could appreciate that from a personal standpoint. I was disappointed that he wasn't able to be the conductor longer than he was. It was a little confusing and painful at times.”
In February 1988, the orchestra’s board narrowly voted against retaining Clark. He resigned three days later, effective at the end of the 1988-89 season, and was given a nine-month severance. The search for a new music director began.
Foster takes a pass
Because of Clark’s pending departure, the symphony board had to choose an interim music director. In May 1988, Kazimierz Kord, the music director of the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, was chosen to lead the orchestra for the 1989-90 season as principal guest conductor.
In the meantime, several prominent mid-career maestros were among the finalists considered for the job of permanent music director: Lawrence Foster, Sergiu Comissiona, Zdeněk Mácal and Stuart Challender, among others. In December 1989, the orchestra made Foster an offer. Contract negotiations with the 48-year-old Los Angeles native reportedly reached the point of planning upcoming seasons, but ultimately Foster decided to pass on the opportunity.
Carl St.Clair was among the lesser-known finalists for the music director’s position. His two initial performances with the orchestra in early 1990 came right around the time Foster announced he was no longer in the running.
Though he wasn’t a household name, St.Clair, then 37, was well into a solid career. A student of Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood, the former trumpet player from tiny Hochheim, Texas was an assistant conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and had established a reputation as a talented interpreter of challenging new music while on the conducting faculty at the University of Michigan.
Cynthia Ellis vividly remembers her first impression of St.Clair.
“Oh my gosh, I remember incredible enthusiasm, incredible attention to detail. I remember he was one of the first conductors that came through as a guest conductor who was really working with the percussion section to get just the right sound on the thumb roll of the tambourine, just the right triangle sound. And he was so specific and knew what he wanted. And I think that's a really great quality in a music director.”
“I did like some of the others, but I will say I was a big Carl fan, and he was my first choice,” Tony Ellis said. “And I was incredibly impressed with his professionalism and his concern for detail and his confidence about what he wanted our orchestra to sound like.”
Evans had already been alerted to St.Clair’s potential by none other than celebrated film composer John Williams, who was familiar with the conductor through his work in Boston (Williams was named the 19th conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1980, succeeding the legendary Arthur Fiedler). Williams told Evans that St.Clair was a talent to watch.
In his initial meeting with St.Clair, Evans was impressed by his interpersonal skills and ability to listen, which Evans considers crucial qualities in a music director.
“(At) that first board meeting we ever had with Carl, there were 40 of us sitting around a U-shaped table. And so he (told) us about his history, his background and so forth. Before he ever started, he said, 'Just introduce yourselves around the table.’
“He probably spoke for an hour, an hour and a half. And we were asking questions. And then he said, 'Just so I can refresh my memory. I would like to … make sure I know your names.’ He went around with all 40 of us and told us our names. No notes, no nothing. And from that I realized this guy is a modest person who appreciates his background, and he values other people.”
‘Everything kind of went wrong’
St.Clair had been to Southern California only once in his life in the early 1980s, when the University of Michigan was playing in the Rose Bowl. He briefly visited Orange County, but he knew nothing about its musical life.
St.Clair recalls having a conversation with Williams a few years later.
“He said, ‘Carl, you know, I was just out there in Southern California. And I conducted this crackerjack orchestra, the Pacific Symphony, down in Orange County. They're looking for a music director. They should know about you and you should know about them.’”
Calls were made on St.Clair’s behalf. “Based on John's recommendation and, I guess, my position with the Boston Symphony, they invited me (to conduct) a concert in January of 1990.”
St.Clair came up with a program that excited and inspired him: Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute and Exsultate, jubilate along with Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. To balance the program with more serious fare, he told Spisto he wanted to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pathéthique.”
“Now, the summer before, Mr. B had conducted the Pathéthique Symphony with the Boston Symphony at the Serge Koussevitzky Memorial Concert,” St.Clair said. “Whenever I could, whatever (Bernstein) did, I would do it as often, as quickly as I could, because (I was) just so inspired by what he (did) with the piece. And I thought, ‘Well, this is a very interesting program, a little classical, some romantic, some songs, and I love opera, I love singers, and so this is going to be perfect.’ And then everything kind of went wrong.”
Just days before the first rehearsal, orchestra officials were told that the English guest soprano’s visa would be delayed. St.Clair used his pull to bring in American soprano Benita Valente, who would perform three of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder in addition to the previously scheduled Exsultate, jubilate.
Another wrinkle concerned the Mozart overture. St.Clair was ready to conduct The Magic Flute, but the printed program announced The Marriage of Figaro. Orchestra parts had already been rented.
“But it all worked out,” St.Clair said with a chuckle. “The orchestra was so powerful and played so passionately. And just a few weeks later, they invited me to become their music director.”
The 34-year relationship between St.Clair and Pacific Symphony, one of the longest in America’s orchestral world, had begun.
This is the first of three articles examining the history of Pacific Symphony, timed to run during the course of the 2023-24 season as the orchestra auditions conductors to succeed current music director Carl St.Clair. The series is a collaboration with PBS SoCal and will include broadcasts featuring interviews with St.Clair and others who were crucial to the orchestra’s success since its founding more than four decades ago. In the next article, we’ll look at the St.Clair era.
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Orange County Community Foundation. Culture OC makes all editorial decisions.