St. Clair conducts the orchestra, his wife handles the checkbook [classic article]

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In a field well-known by the public to be occupied by dynamos — think of the old Bugs-Bunny-as-conductor cartoon — American conductor Carl St. Clair is especially charismatic. He has earned an international following and affected the course of classical music for generations to come. In his position as music director of Orange County’s Pacific Symphony, St. Clair has guided the symphony to prominence through award-winning recordings, commissions of new works, world premieres, live broadcasts and an array of music education programs.

In addition to his orchestral work, St. Clair is also sought after as an opera conductor. St. Clair has led the Austin Lyric Opera. He made his Opera Pacific debut conducting Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” He has also been guest conductor of the opera house in Bonn, Germany and the Staatstheater in Hanover.

Bankrate: You have spotlighted in your career the works of living composers. Do you think it’s part of your makeup to want to forge your own way in the field of music?

Carl St. Clair: I think that what happened in the mid-20th century is that classical music was redefined. In the previous century, the conductors had been of European descent, with only some speaking English, and they were more autocratic. Leonard Bernstein is the one who redefined the role of the conductor. He redefined what a community could expect out of its conductor. One of the ways he did this was through education. He had his Young People’s Concerts on prime-time television, which is really incredible when you think about it. I mean, we’re on at 2 a.m. on some arts cable channel that you have to pay extra to see! Also, Bernstein, along with George Szell of Cleveland, opened the way to living composers. I never wanted to work in a museum, playing just the old master works. I wanted to forge forward and increase the works played in the concert halls. I am lucky, I have longtime friends who are composers; they are just now becoming infamous!

Bankrate: The Pacific Symphony operates on a per-service model, paying for each rehearsal and concert. While there are many pros to this: flexible budget, new creative talent and presumably no deadweights, you have cons in the lack of continuity and extra training and audition time. Would you speak to these issues?

Carl St. Clair: Our players are non-tenured. Our fair trade agreement gives them the same rights, though. It’s incorrect to think of Pacific Symphony Orchestra as a freelance orchestra. The contract gives us financial freedom. If we’re doing a piece that calls for a chamber orchestra, we don’t have to pay for the full orchestra. The musicians supplement their income with teaching, chamber music, Hollywood studio work.

Bankrate: PSO is also hired as an ensemble for other work, such as being the pit orchestra for your local dance and opera reps. This creates almost a full-time position for the benefit of those players who may need it. How did this come about?

Carl St. Clair: In 2000, our board of directors adopted a very interesting model. They decided it was not in our best interest to be like the Chicago Symphony. We decided to blend three factions: one, the great 18th and 19th century orchestral traditions. You know, the Vienna Philharmonic tours and records, but they are really the resident orchestra for the opera house! Second, the Birmingham Symphony. It’s in an industrial town in England that had this cultural surge. They did a lot of interesting programming, really putting itself on the map. Third, virtuosity versatility. Our players can go from playing Hollywood studio music to Mahler, to accompanying the Oak Ridge Boys, to a family concert, to the Three Jewish Tenors, to accompanying the Bolshoi Ballet, to a Ray Charles concert. In the future, other orchestras will probably follow our model.

Bankrate: You have been fortunate to have had some of the great conductors as mentors. In any field of life, mentors are important. How does one find and develop a great mentor relationship?

Carl St. Clair: I’ve been very blessed with some of the greatest teachers. It’s almost impossible to force such a relationship, you can’t insist. The teacher initiates and the student has sponge-like qualities! I studied with Dr. Walter Ducloux and he was Toscanini’s assistant in Europe. Ducloux spoke, like, seven languages. He joined the U.S. Army during World War II as Patton’s interpreter, because he spoke so many of the languages he needed on the front. I met him at Texas. I wrote him a note. He wrote back. I had a three and a half minute audition! I needed an assistantship to go to school. I became his assistant. I was a conducting fellow at Tanglewood. That’s how I met Bernstein. Yeah, you sit there and keep thinking, “Pick me! Pick me!” But I just did my best and hoped. It was not overtly done. They’re so busy, it never works to force it. Now that I have so much work, I can see how it is. Mr. B. came up to me and asked, “Cowboy, why don’t you call me? You know I’m up at three, four in the morning.” I told him, “One day, I will call you, when the only one who can help me is you.” He always respected that. Finally, he said, “It’s your turn to fly the flag.” He meant, “You have to give back.”

Bankrate: What about the competition to be a conductor?

Carl St. Clair: Oh, that’s unbelievable. For my assistant position, we had 160 applicants. You have no idea. You have to judge their quality and artistic ability from a video and resume. It’s hard to visualize from that how they will work with your musicians, board of directors, educational board. Getting their resumes, I read them all personally. You narrow it down to 25, then 15. You get some other input and narrow it to 10. Then you invite five to come and audition. The year I was invited to Tanglewood, they had 300 applicants and only took five. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of having a good day. Sometimes, not getting the job is the best thing that never happened to you. It’s happened to me a few times.

Bankrate: What expenses do you have as a conductor?

Carl St. Clair: I don’t have a $100,000 violin. I do have insurance. I have a piano, I have my trumpet. Batons are not expensive. What’s expensive are the scores, the research. The computer helps a lot. The parts are copied from the original by hand, then done on computer.

Bankrate: How much does it cost to commission a new work?

Carl St. Clair: When you commission a new piece, the going rate is a minimum of a $1,000 per minute of music. That seems to be a good way of measuring the price. The price rises up from there, though. There’s the cost of the rehearsals. You have to fly the composer in. And, if you have a chorus or soloist with the music, it can cost quite a bit to give birth to it.

Bankrate: Do you manage your own money?

Carl St. Clair: My wife is much better at it than I am, that’s her background. She pays attention to the details. This artist is not very keen at it, not very good at it. She was blown away when she met me, how I kept my checkbook, how I used to reconcile the missing lines. She finds mistakes in bills.

Bankrate: Do you have investments?

Carl St. Clair: Of course we do! I have a 403(b) with the PSO. That’s because we’re a nonprofit. I’ve saved for my retirement. I have stocks. Fortunately, my portfolio stayed relatively healthy in the last onslaught.

Bankrate: Have you been saving for your kids to go to college?

Carl St. Clair: Oh yeah. I’m astonished at the costs. I’m totally amazed, especially with people going to music school. With musicians, there’s no guarantee of making a living. There are a lot more variables to the job. And, there’s the pay level. It’s very competitive. For a principal trumpet opening, maybe, maybe at our level there’s one or two openings every few years. Don’t forget, when Philly was in its infancy, they also didn’t pay a living wage. People would take side jobs in pit orchestras under false names, because they didn’t want people to know they were playing there.

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