Anyone who has seen a Pacific Symphony concert in the past 20 years knows the passion and energy that music director Carl St.Clair brings to his job.
St.Clair’s animated conducting – moving with the music, leaning into his orchestra to coax the sound forth, sometimes closing his eyes and with his face skyward – is an expression of how he approaches his job and his life, an all-out commitment to artistry and excellence.
And as he begins his 21st season with the local symphony, that energy and commitment are undimmed, and finding new modes of expression.
“We’re going to redefine what a symphony orchestra is going to be in the mid-21st century,” he said emphatically last week in an interview in a quiet outdoor nook at The Lumberyard, near his Laguna Beach home.
“In many organizations, you see a ceiling,” he said. “But the sky’s still the limit for the Pacific Symphony. We still don’t know what we’re going to be when we grow up.”
For St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony, that quest will include looking for new ways to relate to its audience and the wider community, new ways to present and distribute its music, and new music and new musicians to support and nurture.
“We have lost generations of people who have no experience with the type of music the Pacific Symphony plays,” he admits. “So we have 20 music and outreach programs in the community. We spend the largest portion of our budget of any symphony in the nation on outreach and community.”
The symphony also is exploring new ways to attract people into the concert hall. At one performance last year, notes about what the orchestra was playing were distributed to audience members via text message and Twitter. The audience also voted electronically on what it wanted for an encore, and the orchestra played the top three vote-getters.
At the “Pictures at an Exhibition” concerts this weekend at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, two local artists will be exhibiting in the Box Circle lobby, and there also will an interactive iPad Color & Sound exhibit in the main lobby.
“It’s a huge challenge, to find relevance,” said St.Clair, adding later, “We’re trying to turn a concert into an event.”
The orchestra is also going to record again, after a hiatus of several years, but it won’t be the traditional studio work.
Advances in technology, he said, have made possible top-quality live recordings, and last season’s world-premiere performance of the commissioned work “Mount Rushmore” by Michael Daugherty was recorded over two days. The editing was just recently completed and a CD will be released soon.
Two other works will be similarly recorded this season, St.Clair said.
The orchestra is also looking at distributing downloadable performances via the Internet, seeing that as a model for the future.
Musically, St.Clair says he approaches each season as a chef planning a multi-course meal, with each concert being a course that complements the other courses as they combine for a single, sublime experience.
This season, the meal features generous helpings of Beethoven, including performances of all five of his piano concertos in a series of three concerts in February, featuring pianist Arnaldo Cohen.
“If you’re a musician and you don’t have Beethoven in your DNA, there’s something wrong with your helix,” St.Clair laughed as he discussed this season’s programming.
“I’ve always wanted to do all five Beethoven concertos back-to-back,” he said. “To hear all of them in one week is a different experience altogether, one you can’t get piecemeal.”
“It’s a lot to ask of a pianist,” he acknowledged, but said that the orchestra has had “tremendous chemistry” with Cohen in the past, and Cohen has done the cycle before.
Also on tap for the season is Beethoven’s “Chorale Fantasy” in November, and a program of his chamber music in January.
The season also includes Liszt, Mahler, Schumann and an evening with Philip Glass, among many others.
A complete 2010-11 season calendar is at www.pacificsymphony.org