Finding a New Conductor for Changing Times

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Pacific Symphony is looking for someone to lead it as successfully as its longtime music director, Carl St.Clair.

Carl St.Clair has led Pacific Symphony for 34 years. He will probably step aside at the end of the 2024-25 season. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

Next year will mark a significant milestone for the performing arts in Orange County: the end of the Carl St.Clair era. The conductor will likely leave his position at the conclusion of the 2024-25 season after leading Pacific Symphony for 35 years, although he’ll remain active with the orchestra as conductor laureate.

It’s been an extraordinary and unusually lengthy run. St.Clair is currently the longest-serving music director of a major American orchestra, and under his baton the ensemble has flourished: It’s now the largest U.S. orchestra founded in the last 50 years.

In that respect, Pacific Symphony might represent the last of its kind, St.Clair said. 

St.Clair will continue his relationship with Pacific Symphony as conductor laureate after his successor is chosen. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

“If you look at the tapestry of orchestras in America, this is a very unique history. It’s almost Herculean – the growth and the development of the orchestra. After I’d been here 10 years I realized, ‘Wow. I don’t see a ceiling forming above this orchestra. I don’t see any limitations.’”

St.Clair credits the leadership of Pacific Symphony president John Forsyte and a committed and visionary board as two major reasons for the orchestra’s growth – all the more remarkable, he said, in an era when new American orchestras were rare and often not successful.

“As I look around the country, I’m not sure that there will be another tier one orchestra that is going to be formed in America,” St.Clair said. “Because (most urban) areas either have a tier one orchestra or have attempted, for whatever reason, haven’t attained it.” 

St.Clair is proud of his achievements and his lengthy period at the helm, but he’s quick to point out other conductors who enjoyed long and fruitful careers with a single orchestra: Bernard Haitink, Eugene Ormandy, Serge Koussevitzky, Seiji Ozawa.

“I’m not comparing myself to these great maestros, but I’m just saying that like them, I think my (long tenure) really helped stabilize the trajectory, the philosophy, the path, the journey of the Pacific Symphony. In its 45-year-history, we’ve had only two music directors.”

St.Clair has no sentimental illusions about his successor preserving the orchestra exactly as he has shaped it. He looks forward to seeing it explore new directions.

“I think the orchestra … can flourish even more with a different vision, a different voice. I also feel very strongly that in order for the orchestra to continue its trajectory into its 50th anniversary and into the middle part of the 21st century, that a new voice, a new vision, a new feeling will help get it there.”

Chilean Italian conductor Paolo Bortolameolli is music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional Juvenil (Chile) and associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He will guest-conduct Pacific Symphony March 20-22, 2025. Here he is conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the Venezuela Sinfónica.

A Parade of Guest Conductors

This season and next, Pacific Symphony audiences are witnessing the lengthy process of finding a successor for St.Clair. A parade of guest conductors, many of them presumably vying for his job, have already (or soon will) lead the orchestra in programs that showcase their strengths; each one is also given an opportunity to talk to the audience.

But audiences don’t get a vote, and the mysterious details of choosing a music director are kept largely under wraps. What, exactly, are Pacific Symphony president John Forsyte, the musicians and the orchestra’s board looking for?

Ideally, someone who will commit to Orange County as completely as St.Clair did. One reason he landed the job in 1990 is that Lawrence Foster, a more well-known conductor who was considered for the job, was reluctant to move to O.C. because his career included many commitments to other orchestras in far-flung cities.

“I think increasingly we have to insist on a certain amount of time here,” Forsyte said. “There’s no question about that.”

But these days, that’s a demanding requirement, Forsyte acknowledged.

“I think residency is more fluid than it’s ever been. It’s hard to demand that a conductor who has children growing up in some school district in Denmark (should) pick up and move to Orange County. And I think also because we’re on the West Coast, we have to be sensitive to where the career centers are for particular conductors.” Europe and America’s East Coast have the world’s biggest concentration of major orchestras and opera companies.

“So I think our board is hoping for someone who obviously would be a resident. (At) a minimum, we would expect a (commitment of a) number of months that they’re here living in the community.”

Former board chairman John Evans agreed. “They would have to have a significant presence where we are. And ideally, if they just plain changed their residency (to) here, that would be wonderful. I’m expecting that that would happen, but we’re looking (at) the total person.”

That demand has to be counterbalanced with the reality that a successful conductor is in demand and must spend some of the concert season out of town, Forsyte said.

“I’ve said to the board, ‘Do you really know how many weeks Carl is living here in any given year? Are you tracking that?’ He’s an international figure. He flies to Atlanta, Europe, Costa Rica.”

The new conductor’s commitment to O.C. is about more than simply living here, Forsyte said.

“At the end of the day, it’s more about the emotional curiosity, the desire to get to know your county and make that commitment psychologically – exploring intellectually who we are.”

PHOTO 1: Italian conductor Valentina Peleggi has been music director of the Richmond Symphony since the 2020-21 season. She will be a guest conductor during Pacific Symphony’s 2024-25 season. Photo courtesy of valentinapeleggi.com. PHOTO 2: The South Korean conductor Shiyeon Sung is one of three women who will appear this season and next as Pacific Symphony guest conductors. She will conduct a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pathétique,” on April 28. Photo courtesy of Colbert Arts Management

A Time of Increasing Diversity

It’s no surprise that the list of guest conductors this season and next includes three women: Shiyeon Sung, Tianyi Lu and Valentina Peleggi. Much has been written in the last few years about the dearth of women at the podium of major U.S. orchestras. Marin Alsop retired from her position as conductor/musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2021. There is now only one woman conducting a top 25 orchestra in America: Nathalie Stutzmann, who became music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2022. There’s a general feeling in the orchestral world that women conductors are underrepresented in the U.S., Forsyte said.

“I think we’re keenly aware of the need to diversify who’s on the stage, who’s performing, who auditions for symphony orchestra positions while maintaining the same rigor that we’ve always had (regarding) anonymity,” Forsyte said. “You know, we audition (musicians) with a screen up.” Half the orchestra’s musicians are female, Forsyte pointed out.

Regarding the incoming music director, “at the end of the day, I think the artistry, the communicative abilities, the sensitivity to the diversity of people in our county (are what’s important),” Forsyte said. “There’s no predicting who will have those qualities, whether they be a male or a female.” 

Forsyte pointed to the roster of guest conductors on the Pacific Symphony lineup as proof that a realm once dominated by Western European and American men who spent their careers primarily in the concert hall is now much more diverse.

“There’s an incredible number of conductors … who come from the European opera world and elsewhere. They come from Venezuela, South America, East Asia. I mean, just the geographic sources of (the guest) conductors is amazing.”

Chinese-born New Zealander Tianyi Lu will conduct a program of Beethoven and Sibelius with Pacific Symphony May 16-18. In this video she leads the Seattle Symphony in a performance of Richard Srauss’ Aus Italien (From Italy), Op. 16. Video courtesy of tianyi-lu.com

A Time for Fundamental Changes

Finding a new music director isn’t Pacific Symphony’s only major task. There’s a growing consensus in the orchestral world that its relationship with audiences has to change. New post-pandemic audience trends, demographic shifts and the growing importance of post-Baby Boom concertgoers will profoundly influence every orchestra’s programming, education and community outreach efforts.

“I think what we’re going to see looking to the future of symphonic music is more reliance upon some kind of digital component,” said flutist Cynthia Ellis, who has been with Pacific Symphony since its beginnings. “There’s going to be more technology that’s going to come into the concert hall, not to change the sound, but to change the presentation.”

Programming will also change, Ellis believes. “I think the repertory will open up a little bit. Not just Brahms and Beethoven, because I’m not sure the audience today resonates with that like they did in the ’70s. We need to have a little fresher perspective. Our recent ‘Star Wars’ concert, which was sold out, was a great example of that, where people are coming for movie music that they’re familiar with.”

Forsyte said that diversifying the orchestra’s programming is in the cards. He also believes that offering new and even untraditional venues is crucial to attracting new audiences.

“I can see an orchestra that performs even more diverse programming choices than we have today in many different venues, to see what works. And we’re dreaming that we’ll have a beautiful new outdoor venue, hopefully in the next three years in the Great Park of Orange County, which will be critical for us. I think classical music can really benefit from the outdoor experience.”

Finding a new leader who’s sensitive to such changes, in addition to being popular with audiences, musicians and board members, will be a tall order, Evans said. He acknowledged there’s a certain element of chance to the choice.

“Everyone we’ve seen so far has had their own personality and approach, but they’ve all been very talented. The musicians, of course, have their own (criteria), but this is going to be a challenging process.”

Forsyte is looking for a leader who can accurately read not only the larger trends, but smaller ones as well, counterbalancing those efforts with the need to embrace certain traditions.

“As is true with our generation, younger generations are not monolithic. They have different tastes and segments. So there’s a lot of experimentation that needs to happen. And I think any new music director would have to be open to trying new ways to attract audiences. 

“At the same time, we have a wonderful set of traditions in the orchestra world, and there’s still a fairly large audience for what we produce. That won’t be changing anytime soon.”

This is the third 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.

John Forsyte, who is quoted in this story, is member of the advisory board for Culture OC.



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