When we think of world-renowned art, we picture galleries and concert halls in sophisticated, cultured cities: London, New York and Paris, for example. We don’t think of Hochheim, Texas, a small farm town rarely mistaken as a land of opportunity. But for one 6-year-old boy, opportunity came knocking there, in the form of what at the time was a disappointing birthday present: piano lessons. This unwanted gift changed everything.
The farm boy, Carl St.Clair, is today one of America’s longest-tenured symphony conductors, a world-renowned professional who has worked with major symphonies throughout U.S. and the world.
“I got on the wings of music and flew out [of Hochheim],” Maestro St.Clair told Dr. John Romeri, Christ Cathedral’s Director of Music Ministries, during an interview on Dr. Romeri’s “Music From the Tower” a weekly show on Relevant Radio.
St.Clair has served as the Pacific Symphony’s music director for 28 years, taking the helm in 1990. Through the years, he’s helped elevate the OC arts community. “He’s put the Pacific Symphony on the international stage,” says Jean Oelrich, the Symphony’s director of marketing and communications.
“The first time I ever saw an orchestra, I performed in it,” St.Clair told Dr. Romeri during the podcast. “It turns out those first piano lessons was the best gift I ever had.”
“Many composers come to a symphony and then move on to more prestigious ones,” Dr. Romeri says. “Carl could’ve moved on many, many times – his reputation is that good – but he’s chosen to stay here. That he’s stayed on and developed the Pacific Symphony into a world-class orchestra speaks to his character and his dedication to the people of Orange County. This is his gift to everyone here.”
Thanks in large part to St.Clair’s distinguished performances, his commitment to music education and community involvement and his innovative approaches to programming, the Pacific Symphony is the largest orchestra formed in the U.S. in the last half century. “Part of his appeal is that he’s always been an advocate for new music,” Oelrich says. “This has been a big part of the Pacific Symphony’s growth.”
Spirituality has continually been a key element in St.Clair’s work. “He’s a very down-to-earth guy and a very devout Catholic,” Dr. Romeri says. “He loves Bishop Vann and has asked him for blessings before taking the podium.”
“The real purpose of music isn’t just to listen to it,” St.Clair explained to Dr. Romeri. “It’s to enhance the life God has given us and to lift our spirits. Music has to touch the soul and the hearts of listeners.”
This faith was evident during last November’s Cathedrals of Sound concert. “Carl had Segerstrom Hall essentially turned into a Cathedral,” Dr. Romeri says. The evening featured the work of Anton Bruckner, a devout Catholic. Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey performed Gregorian chants in the lobby before and after the concert, and Maestro St.Clair gave a talk about that evening’s featured piece, Bruckner’s 8th Symphony.
The maestro will be deeply involved with the Diocese going forward. “Segerstrom Hall is a wonderful venue,” says Dr. Romeri, “but by working with the Diocese, Carl and his orchestra will have many opportunities to perform in a real cathedral. … I see him as someone with such a deep faith, and all of his artistry and work is rooted in that faith. He knows that every great piece of music is rooted in spirituality.”
“Music From the Heart”, a series of concerts to take place in Christ Cathedral, will showcase great works approached from a spiritual perspective. “Every work in the series will feature great sacred choral and orchestral literature that we can explore and learn from,” Dr. Romeri says. And in July 2019 the maestro – along with Robert Istad, artistic director of the Pacific Chorale – will head a gala concert during Christ Cathedral’s Dedication Week, an important celebration that will include, among other things, a variety of exhibitions and tours. St.Clair will commission a new piece just for the occasion.
For six years, the maestro worked with the great Leonard Bernstein, who later in life stressed the importance of “paying it forward” through music-education programs. Thanks to Bernstein’s influence, St.Clair has always been active in education and community involvement, helping to create the Pacific Symphony Youth Ensembles, Heartstrings, Sunday Casual Connections, OC Can You Play With Us? Arts-X-press and Class Act. Moving forward, his education and community involvement will embrace the Diocese. This has always been a priority at Christ Cathedral, says Dr. Romeri. Through education, he adds, “We show everyone how the music relates to the Liturgy.”
To Maestro Carl St.Clair, music and the Liturgy will always remain connected.
“God’s gift to me was the talent to become the musician that I am today. My gift to Him is how I use that talent. … I speak about this openly and publicly. How I use it this God-given talent is my way of paying Him respect.”