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Pacific Symphony Opens 45th Season with Rousing Strauss

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

REVIEW: Carl St.Clair leads a capable performance of the composer’s Ein Heldenleben as the orchestra begins searching for his successor.

Close up of a man conducting an orchestra
Carl St.Clair conducts Ein Heldenleben in the season opener at the Pacific Symphony. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

It’s going to be a fun-to-watch season at the Pacific Symphony, which launched its 45th go-round Thursday night at Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Carl St.Clair, music director of the ensemble since the first Bush administration, has said that he’ll step down from the position at some unspecified date, presumably in the nearish future. Accordingly, he’ll be conducting only four of the twelve programs of the main classical subscription series this season, making way for a series of guest conductors to display their wares.

Are these guest conductors auditioning for St.Clair’s spot? Orchestra officials aren’t saying. But they are also not not saying, which to our ears sounds like, “You bet they’re auditioning,” and we’re going to assume such for the time being.

Meanwhile, back at Segerstrom on Thursday, the main order of business, in the after-intermission slot, was a performance of Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”) by Richard Strauss. As a prelude to the performance, a short video was screened featuring members of the orchestra naming their own musical heroes (teachers, mostly; one so bold as to name St.Clair) before the orchestra’s CEO named the audience as his musical hero. Gosh.

It was cute, even interesting, but hardly the way to introduce Ein Heldenleben to the unsuspecting public. (St.Clair’s prefatory remarks from the stage were better.)

Strauss’ tone poem is no straightforward depiction of heroism, or even admirable character. The hero of this little ditty, it turns out, is the composer himself, whom he paints in such grandiose themes as to be laughable. There are also the composer’s enemies here — music critics! — nattering fools who snipe and jab and think Richard Strauss is an idiot. His wife appears (in the form of a violin solo) and it turns out she talks a lot. Like, a lot.

She does eventually soothe the composer’s injured ego, though, and a rhapsodic and ravishing love scene ensues. Ah, married life. The famous battle scene follows, composer vs. critics, from which the composer emerges triumphant on gallant steed.

He then is so kind as to share with us a litany of all his heroic deeds, which (not making this up) is a kind of musical collage quoting themes from Strauss’ previous works. But a critic reemerges, throwing the composer into a rage, after which he just gives up and retires to the country, finally finding peace among the shepherds and lambs. Some hero.

That Strauss meant a good deal of Ein Heldenleben to be taken ironically and humorously is apparent to these ears. If not, it becomes one of the most insufferable pieces in the repertoire. No. He’s joking. That’s it.

The performance was a sturdy one. St.Clair knows this territory well and kept a tight rein. The sweeping opening moved swiftly and crisply. The lyrical climaxes and peaceful end were phrased lovingly and purposefully. The orchestra played with palpable motivation. About the only objection to be made was that the fortissimos could become blaring and edgy in tone, especially in the brass and percussion, but sometimes in the strings, too. Concertmaster Dennis Kim gave a superb account of the wife’s violin solo, full of finesse and tenderness and variety.

Two men in suits, holding microphones in front of an orchestra.
Carl St.Clair, left, talks with composer Viet Cuong before the performance of Cuong's piece. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

Before intermission, Viet Cuong’s Vital Sines was given its local premiere, with the Grammy-winning new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird as soloists. Originally written for the U.S. Navy Band and Eighth Blackbird, Cuong, who is the orchestra’s composer in residence, made a new version for full orchestra heard for the first time here.

It is a bright and cheerful work, sophisticated but easy to like. Taking its cues from both Baroque music and minimalism, Vital Sines unfolds in vaulting and exuberant rhythms and repeated major-keyed harmonic progressions. It’s a concerto grosso of sorts, with the sextet Eighth Blackbird (piano, violin, cello, clarinet, flute and percussion, including marimba and drum set) out front leading the party, but with the orchestra fully and thumpingly involved as well. The same basic material is turned over and over in the 16 minutes of the piece but with such colorful variation it engrosses.

A full orchestra with 5 soloists and their instruments up front.
Eighth Blackbird performs Vital Sines with the Pacific Symphony. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

The energetic reading lacked only in that the soloists didn’t stand out clearly at times. Eighth Blackbird’s lovely encore was the “Eighth Way” from Thomas Albert’s Thirteen Ways, complete with birdcalls and intimations of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.”

St.Clair and musicians opened the concert with a warm and easygoing reading of Mozart’s brief Symphony No. 32, one of the composer’s lesser efforts, but charming enough to get the ball rolling.


Classical music coverage at Culture OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Culture OC makes all editorial decisions.


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