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Pacific Symphony Searches for a New Leader in Challenging Times

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

The 2023-2024 season will feature many guest conductors seeking to succeed longtime music director Carl St.Clair.


Carl St.Clair conducting early in his career, left; St.Clair conducting during the opening concert of the 2023-2024 season. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony
 

This article kicks off a series of in-depth looks at the past, present and future of Pacific Symphony as it conducts its search for a new music director. Culture OC will collaborate with PBS SoCal on the series, which will feature content shared by both organizations presented over the course of the orchestra’s season.

 

This season, Pacific Symphony will be tackling a herculean task that it has undertaken only once before in its 45-year history: finding a new conductor.


Carl St.Clair, the orchestra’s longtime music director, announced last September that he will leave his post — probably at the end of the 2023-24 season, although he could stay longer if necessary. He is only the second person to occupy that position, succeeding founding conductor Keith Clark in 1990.


St.Clair, 71, will continue his association with the symphony after his present contract ends, although the nature of the relationship has not been revealed. A succession of guest conductors will appear over the next few months, many if not all of them presumably vying for St.Clair’s job. The first guest conductor, Christian Kluxen, will lead the orchestra later this week in a program that includes Sibelius’ Violin Concerto and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.


Selecting a conductor is a decision that brings risk and opportunities for both stability and change, setting the course for Orange County’s marquee musical ensemble well into the future. Successful conductors achieve a deft synergy with their community, tapping into the personality of a place and becoming cultural ambassadors who project civic spirit, pride and identity.


First and foremost, though, is the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra. “There’s an intangible chemistry between … a music director and the musicians with whom they work,” said John Forsyte, president of Pacific Symphony. “That’s why we value the musicians’ input in this process (of choosing a new music director).”


The ineffable magic that happens on the podium is something every orchestra strives for. “Chemistry must be evident right from the word go, right from the point the conductor meets the orchestra in a rehearsal,” said Nick Matthias, a senior vice president at IMG Artists, an agency that manages a number of top conductors, in an interview on New York Public Radio. “Of course, no one has any control over the chemistry aspect at all. This is something very special. Once the conductor walks out on that podium, it's out of all of our hands."


Carl St.Clair conducts the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale at Carnegie Hall. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

A six-member committee of Pacific Symphony musicians has been appointed to help with the selection process, Forsyte said. "It's just extremely important to let them reflect on their personal experience with (an auditioning conductor). We also get surveys that come back from the musicians at large. We really interpret those surveys carefully. The musicians have a whole range of things that they evaluate, from technique to rehearsal time to score preparation, etc.”


“I know we all (get to) voice our opinions on who we hope to get,” said Tony Ellis, who has held the position of second trumpet with Pacific Symphony since 1984. “The one thing that’s constant — all the people I talk to want a conductor that we feel we have a collaborative relationship with. For me, that’s the biggest thing, (that) our next conductor is someone we can express opinions to and talk with about musical ideas and how to play something and have a voice. We don’t want someone whose attitude is, ‘I’m gonna do it my way.’”


Forsyte listed a range of questions that he and the orchestra’s musicians must consider as they seek a new leader:


“What kind of thought partner are we engaging? Can they lead or co-lead in vision development with a board, with musicians? Are they collaborative — for example on programming? Would they welcome input? Are they instrumentalists themselves, and how does that resonate with the musicians of the orchestra? What interest do they have in new music and the role of the composer in society? How do they feel about the traditions that for many audience members are so very important?”


Incoming Conductor Will Face an Altered Climate for the Performing Arts

Pacific Symphony’s leadership change is happening at a time when audiences have become increasingly choosy. Many well-established arts groups around the country have struggled to reach their pre-pandemic subscription numbers. Seasons have been curtailed; programming has grown increasingly safe. Formerly reliable ticket buyers have become more comfortable with alternatives to live events, and arts leaders are struggling to come to terms with the new normal.


In an August 2022 article in the New York Times, journalists Michael Paulson and Javier C. Hernandez described how the downturn has affected the performing arts in New York City and across the nation. “Around New York, and across the country, audiences remain well below pre-pandemic levels. From regional theaters to Broadway, and from local orchestras to grand opera houses, performing arts organizations are reporting persistent — and worrisome — drops in attendance.”


Forsyte emphasized the crucial role that a music director plays in maintaining audience interest and enthusiasm during challenging times.


“We have a unique challenge, which is differentiation in a very, very crowded market. There does need to be kind of a fun, experimental mind at the helm — somebody who's bringing a fresh perspective (to) the role of an orchestra, who captivates (the concertgoer’s) attention and imagination.”


Ultimately, the music director must be someone that clicks with audiences as well as the orchestra, said John Evans, past chair of the orchestra’s board of directors, who helped choose St.Clair as music director.


“That quality will be important to me. Can I personally relate to them, the way I did with Carl? And if I can't, can our community, can our board, can our constituents relate to this new music director? And will that person be devoted and committed to us? Those are the things I think about.”

 

Guest Conductors for Pacific Symphony’s 2023-2024 Season


Eight guest conductors will lead the Pacific Symphony this season. TOP row, from left: Christian Kluxen (Photo by Marthe Mølstre, Arctic Philharmonic), Ludovic Morlot (Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), Alexander Shelley and Matthew Halls. BOTTOM row, from left: Andrew Litton (Photo by Steve J. Sherman), Carlos Miguel Prieto (Photo by Benjamin Ealovega), Shiyeon Sung (Photo by Astrid Ackerm) and Tianyi Lu. (Photo by Macro Borggreve). Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony
 

Christian Kluxen (Oct. 19-21: Sibelius' Violin Concerto) is music director of the Victoria Symphony in Victoria, British Columbia. He’s also chief conductor of the Arctic Opera and Philharmonic in Norway.


Ludovic Morlot (Nov. 16-18: California Dreamin') became music director of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra in Sept. 2022. He was music director of the Seattle Symphony for eight years.


Alexander Shelley (Nov. 30-Dec. 2: New World Symphony) is music director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and principal associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.


Matthew Halls (Jan. 11-13: Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto) was named chief conductor-designate of Finland’s Tampere Philharmonic in September 2022. Halls regularly guest conducts the Cleveland Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Iceland Symphony, Wiener Symphoniker, Finnish Radio Symphony, Dallas Symphony and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.


Andrew Litton (Feb. 22-24: Beethoven and Shostakovich) is music director of the New York City Ballet and principal conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, conductor laureate of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and music director laureate of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic.


Carlos Miguel Prieto (March 14-16: Mahler's Fifth) was Musical America’s 2019 Conductor of the Year. He is music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, North Carolina Symphony, Orquestra Sinfonia de Miner in Mexico, and the Orchestra of the Americas.


Shiyeon Sung (April 25-27: Tchaikovsky's Sixth) is South Korea’s leading female conductor. She was the assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She regularly conducts the Korea National Opera and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.


Tianyi Lu (May 16-18: Beethoven and Sibelius) is a Chinese-born New Zealander. She won first prize at the Sir George Solti International Conductors’ Competition and the Guido Cantelli International Conducting Competition. She conducts the Welsh National Opera and is the principal conductor of the St. Woolos Sinfonia in Wales.


Who do you think should be Pacific Symphony's next music director? Culture OC invites you to weigh in on our Facebook page with your thoughts on each candidate after they perform. At the end of the season, we'll conduct a poll to find out who our readers' favorite candidate is.


 

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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