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Pacific Symphony in Transition, Part 2: Growth, Turmoil, Tragedy and Triumph

Updated: Mar 27



St.Clair will remain active with Pacific Symphony after his successor is chosen, though his title and duties have yet to be determined. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony


When Carl St.Clair became music director of Pacific Symphony in 1990, it was the culmination of a lifelong fantasy: leading a major orchestra.

“I suppose that somewhere in my mind, I had the dream of conducting an orchestra or an opera,” St.Clair said. “I remember telling my grandmother when I was 6 or 7 years old, ‘I might not have a dime, but I want to be a musician.’ And she reminded me of that when she was in her 90s. I had sort of forgotten it.”

St.Clair, a native of tiny Hochheim, Texas, showed a keen interest in music from an early age. He started piano lessons at 6, played trumpet in his middle school concert band, participated in the marching band and jazz ensemble, even dabbled in rock ‘n’ roll.

Early in his career, St.Clair conducted a new-music ensemble at the University of Michigan. It was an eye- and ear-opening experience for the recent University of Texas grad.

“Until that point, my idea of contemporary music was about Bartok and Stravinsky, you know? I had almost no relationship with living composers, except for those that were in Ann Arbor and at the University of Michigan. But that really lit my fire to understand the importance of working with living, breathing composers.” 

St.Clair was introduced to the world of Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony,  by his U of M conducting colleague, Gustav Meier. In 1985, he became a conducting fellow there, giving him the opportunity to work with the world’s leading conductors of the time: Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Andre Previn, Kurt Mazur.

Bernstein was St.Clair’s most important mentor. 

“The very first day I remember meeting him was at Tanglewood. That day there was (a) Beethoven symphony that we were going to learn. And I thought, ‘I know this, I can really do this.’ And after three hours with him, we had reached measure five. And that day I realized …  that I didn't really know anything about that symphony.” 

St.Clair has been conducting since the late 1970s. His career, which began with a faculty position at the University of Michigan, has led to positions in Boston, Berlin and several other cities with major orchestras. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

When St.Clair took up the baton at Pacific Symphony, Orange County was completely new to him. He’d visited once before as a football fan, when Michigan was in the Rose Bowl in the early 1980s. But he knew beyond a doubt what to program on his first concert series: Beethoven’s solemn Symphony No. 7.

“Bernstein had (recently) done Beethoven's 7th. So on my very first concert as music director of the Pacific Symphony, guess what? I was going to program Beethoven seven. My father had just died, so I was in a very sort of heavy place.”

The choice also sent a message. St.Clair set a goal for his orchestra from the very beginning as an ensemble that would be equally adept at four specific kinds of repertoire: symphonic classics, delicate and virtuosic fare, challenging late Romantic works and new music.

“That was the plan: (an orchestra that can) work with living composers, then play Daphnis and Chloe, then sit down right after that and play a heavy Mahler or Shostakovich symphony, and (then) do a great Eroica. And that's who we are today.” 

St.Clair’s programming choices are governed by his unshakeable belief that everything is chosen for a reason. “Almost nothing I've done has been by happenstance. And this I learned from Bernstein. Everything has a purpose. Everything has a meaning. Everything sends a message.”

John Forsyte, Pacific Symphony’s president and CEO, was deeply impressed by his first encounter with St.Clair. “Carl is full of charm and energy and engagement and personal affection.” Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

A new president takes the helm

When John Forsyte was hired to be Pacific Symphony’s president in May 1998, California was new to him as well. But, like St.Clair, he already had a crystal clear idea about how to approach the job.

“In Kalamazoo, Michigan, which was the orchestra I had in my 20s, I had developed a really close relationship with the music director of that orchestra, Yoshimi Takeda,” Forsyte said. “And I thought, ‘Wherever I go, my next (position) will be one where I know I can have a close relationship with a conductor.’ And by all accounts from my predecessor and from others who knew Carl, he had an exceptional collaborative spirit.”

Forsyte remembers being deeply impressed by his first encounter with St.Clair and the orchestra.

“They were rehearsing Mahler's 5th Symphony. And I was really overwhelmed by the power, and by Carl's passion and preparation. He is a very, very focused, very energized musician. And then off stage, Carl is full of charm and energy and engagement and … personal affection.”

After that first meeting, his task came sharply into focus, Forsyte recalled.

“I thought, it's stable, there's a good board, there's a talented music director, the orchestra musicians are strong, but there was a lot of developmental infrastructure that needed to be put in place. So I saw this just as a personal opportunity for me to surround Carl with what he needed.” During Forsyte’s nearly 26-year tenure, he has overseen a 200% expansion of the orchestra’s budget, among other accomplishments.

The orchestra had been performing in 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall since the fall of 1986, but it faced some serious challenges, Forsyte recalled.

“The orchestra didn't own its own percussion. It didn't really have a legitimate place to rehearse.  It was (performing) pops and classics and family (concerts) all in one week – sometimes 16 services per week, double what would be normal for a professional orchestra.” 

Forsyte’s first few years at the helm brought financial stability and raised the orchestra to a new level artistically thanks to his and St.Clair‘s efforts. The American Composers Festival was launched in 2000 and lasted for 17 years. A nine-city European tour in 2006 brought increased attention, positive reviews from major critics, and, to some observers, a significant leap in quality and maturity for the still-young ensemble. And a move to the new Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall later that year gave the orchestra an acoustically superior home that was the ideal size for its seasons.

Pacific Symphony moved into its new concert hall in 2006. Its superior acoustics were a welcome improvement from the adjacent 3,000 seat venue, which had been its home since 1986. PHOTO 1: The exterior of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. PHOTO 2: The interior of the concert hall. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony

Challenges and personal tragedy

In addition to artistic and financial growth, St.Clair’s middle years with Pacific Symphony also brought personal tragedy and professional setbacks for the conductor.

In 1999, his 18-month-old son, Cole, drowned in a neighbor's pool. It was a profound loss, but it drew the orchestra and community tightly around St.Clair and his family as they grieved and recovered. 

St.Clair’s growing career as an opera director in Europe in the early 2000s came to an abrupt end in 2010 when he unexpectedly left Berlin’s Komische Oper, where he served as general music director for three years; he departed two years before his contract was up. A press release cited “artistic differences” between St.Clair and the company’s intendant, Andreas Homoki, over a production of Beethoven’s Fidelio as the reason for the conductor’s departure. “I’m looking forward to a more concentrated time in Orange County,” St.Clair told The Orange County Register in May 2010. 

But St.Clair’s time in Europe helped pave the way for Pacific Symphony’s growth, Forsyte believes. “That German career in particular really made it possible for the European tour that we undertook in 2006. It would not have happened had he not had a reputation in so many different cities in Germany.”

Under St.Clair, the orchestra has often produced lightly staged operas once per season. Pictured here is a scene from its 2022 production of Verdi’s “Othello.” Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

Since 2010, St.Clair has led the orchestra through a series of triumphs and firsts. He spearheaded many education and community engagement programs: Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra, Pacific Symphony Youth Wind Ensemble, Pacific Symphony Santiago Strings and Pacific Symphony Youth Concert Band, among others. In the 2013-14 season, the Symphony launched //Wavelength//, a festival that featured contemporary music and the orchestra’s musicians in unique collaborations.

The orchestra made several important recordings during that period as well: Philip Glass' The Passion of Ramakrishna and Michael Daugherty's Mount Rushmore, among other releases.

St. Clair also kept professional opera alive in Orange County after the demise of the county’s only company, Opera Pacific, in 2008. The Symphonic Voices program began with Puccini's La bohème in 2012, and has featured a lightly staged opera on most seasons since then.

PHOTO 1: In April 2018, Pacific Symphony made its debut at Carnegie Hall as one of two orchestras invited to perform during a yearlong celebration of composer Philip Glass’ 80th birthday. PHOTO 2:  Pacific Symphony’s 2006 European tour brought it to many major concert halls and was met with critical acclaim. Here they are performing at the Wiener Konzerthaus in Vienna. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony


The orchestra had a momentous year in 2018. In April, it made its debut at Carnegie Hall as one of two orchestras invited to perform during a yearlong celebration of composer Philip Glass’ 80th birthday. In May, St.Clair and his ensemble embarked on a tour of China. In June, the orchestra made its national PBS debut on Great Performances with Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America.

St.Clair with Viet Cuong, Pacific Symphony’s current composer-in-residence. Exploring new music has been a cornerstone of the orchestra’s programming under St.Clair. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

That year was crammed with new and sometimes challenging music, but it wasn’t an anomaly. The orchestra has been particularly active with commissioned world premieres from leading composers such as Daniel Catán, Paul Chihara, James Newton Howard, William Kraft, Ana Lara, Tobias Picker, Christopher Theofanidis, former composer-in-residence Frank Ticheli, John Wineglass and Chen Yi. In recent seasons, St.Clair and his ensemble have performed several unorthodox yet popular new works by its current composer-in-residence, Viet Cuong.

St.Clair era brought opportunities, tough choices for musicians

The orchestra’s musicians remember the St.Clair era as a time of rising professionalism – and, for some, tough choices.

“One of the things that changed us was we got our first official union contracts,” said flutist Cynthia Ellis, who has been with the orchestra since its first season. “And when you get a contract, there’s certain things like attendance requirements, and it's no longer such a freelance orchestra. (You have a more) consistent group of musicians. So that in and of itself really helped shape the sound of the orchestra.”

Trumpeter Tony Ellis, Cynthia’s husband, said that those contracts were an issue for some orchestra members with active freelance careers. “Many musicians were making decisions about how much they’d commit to the PSO versus other groups such as (the) Pasadena (Symphony). There was a lot of unrest and unease at that time. People… had concerns about the growing time requirements. A lot of people didn’t adjust to that very well. A lot of people left and continued their careers in other ways.”

PHOTO 1:  Flutist Cynthia Ellis has been with Pacific Symphony since its inception. PHOTO 2: Barry Perkins has served as principal trumpet for Pacific Symphony since 2004. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony


But the move to contracts improved the cohesion of the group. It also drew the musicians closer together. Trumpeter Barry Perkins was struck by the friendliness of the orchestra when he joined it in 2004.

“What I noticed first off, it was a very friendly environment, which I liked. Pacific Symphony (was) a family. People (welcomed) me with open arms when I got the job.” 

Perkins is one of Hollywood’s most prolific studio musicians who has performed on countless movie soundtracks. He appreciates that the orchestra has crafted its schedule to accommodate musicians who, like him, have major careers in the entertainment industry.

“The Pacific Symphony was designed, I think, for studio players to participate. Rehearsals are at night. (In Hollywood), studio sessions start at 10 a.m. and go until 5 p.m. So that gives the musicians enough time to get to an 8 p.m. rehearsal.”

Forsyte sees St.Clair as part of a generation of American conductors who followed Bernstein’s lead, crafted careers that celebrated music from diverse sources and understood that crucial parts of their job often happened away from the podium.

“I think there is a small number of American (conductors) that were brought up in Leonard Bernstein's time (who) understand the unique nature of being an evangelist that hits the streets and communicates passion. To Carl's credit, we have been pretty progressive in our thinking about the role of an orchestra in the community and have invested very heavily in community engagement.”

John Evans, who was chairman of the orchestra’s board when St.Clair was hired, appreciates that unlike many conductors, he has given the bulk of his career to Pacific Symphony and devoted himself to a life in Orange County – something that has earned him strong allegiance from the community as well as the orchestra’s many subscribers. “I'm devoted to Carl because of what he has done for us. I've been there for that total trajectory. I understand what he did. We treasure that.”


This is the second 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 what lies beyond 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.


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