Pacific Symphony is the largest orchestra formed in the United States in the last 50 years.
The orchestra was founded in 1979 by Keith Clark (a former student and assistant conductor of Roger Wagner at the Los Angeles Master Chorale and principal guest conductor of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra) in his Fullerton, California home's kitchen with a grant of $2,000 and some phone calls to local musicians. The musicians whom Clark called were mainly from Southern California's deep base of professional freelance musicians who performed in the area's movie studios, universities, and other regional performing arts organizations; many of these musicians were former concertmasters, associate concertmasters, and principal players with prominent orchestras including the Cleveland Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, and Los Angeles Philharmonic. Clark became the orchestra's first Music Director and the first orchestra personnel manager was Robert F Peterson known professionally as "Peeps".
The orchestra had its first performance in December 1979 at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton, with Clark on the podium. By 1981, the orchestra played its concerts at the "Good Time Theater" at Knott's Berry Farm with a subscription base of 3,000. By 1983, the orchestra had moved its concerts to the Santa Ana High School auditorium, made its first recording, and had a big enough budget to hire a full-time manager. In that same year, they performed for the first time at the Music Center of Los Angeles County as part of the City of Los Angeles' bicentennial celebrations. James Chute, in a commentary for The Orange County Register, wrote:
"[T]he orchestra's growth continued, as Clark's programs at Santa Ana High School offered an engaging mixture of old and new works, especially American works. The ensemble's recordings of music by Copland, Barber, Ives and Harris were enthusiastically received, while its American music programs attracted large audiences by offering apple pie at intermission and world premieres by respected American composers such as Donald Erb."
In 1986, the orchestra became one of the resident companies at the new Orange County Performing Arts Center, giving its first concerts in its new home in October of that year. The Center had originally refused to give the orchestra residency, citing its strong desire to limit performers to those of "world-class" stature; however, the Center eventually relented and the Pacific Symphony as well as other regional arts organizations were given residency, largely due to Clark's continued lobbying efforts. This move led to a substantial increase in its subscriber base, but also a doubling of the orchestra's budget; unfortunately, the orchestra soon experienced financial difficulties, among them losing its funding grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In June 1987, the orchestra hired Louis Spisto, marketing director of the Pittsburgh Symphony as its new Executive Director. Within months, Clark and Spisto began to clash. Prior to Spisto's arrival, Clark had already developed a difficult reputation with some of the orchestra's Board of Directors and the orchestra's four prior Executive Directors, all of whom had resigned after relatively short tenures (one as short as six weeks).
James Chute, writing in the Orange County Register, described it this way:
"The standard of a respectable Clark performance seemed to be that he was prepared and that he didn't get lost. Occasionally he went further, as he did most recently in a Jan. 21, 1988 program of Prokofiev's "Ivan the Terrible" and Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov." But too often, Clark's performances sounded more like readings than interpretations, and sometimes bad readings, such as his Oct. 2, 1986 opening concert in the center, which was drubbed by critics.
The opposition to Clark, within the orchestra, according to musicians, has been vociferous but only talked about privately. Most musicians, essentially employed at Clark's pleasure, have no job security in the Pacific Symphony and those who invoked his displeasure have, according to musicians, been pulled arbitrarily from concerts."
In October 1987, Clark signed a one-year contract, giving him a substantial pay raise while also establishing an artistic review process the board would use to determine if the contract should be renewed. By February 1988, Spisto helped to engineer a vote by the orchestra's board on whether or not to renew Clark as Music Director through the end of his existing contract. In a vote of 12-11, the board voted against retaining Clark; three days later, Clark resigned.
Keith Clark continued to conduct the orchestra through its 1988-89 season. As part of the terms of his resignation, he was given nine months of severance pay and he still maintained the power to hire and fire musicians at his sole discretion. "I will continue as music director in every sense of that word," he declared.
By the end of 1989, the orchestra had removed all mention of Clark from its official literature. Through the 2012-13 season, there was no recognition on the Pacific Symphony's webpage of Clark's tenure as the orchestra's founder and Music Director. This was finally changed at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, with the orchestra giving credit to "a collaboration between California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), and North Orange County community leaders led by Marcy Mulville" as founding the orchestra before mentioning Clark as its first conductor .
In the meantime, the orchestra and Spisto began to evolve the Pacific Symphony into what it hoped would eventually be a "world-class" orchestra. Its first move was to sign the orchestra musicians to a traditional orchestra contract, complete with tenure rights in line with typical American Federations of Musicians agreements. While critics frequently assailed Clark's podium leadership, the musicians themselves were given much credit. Establishing tenure helped to give the orchestra a more stable reputation. "Tenure will put to rest the notion that this is a pick-up orchestra," Spisto said. "It will also give the players a sense of security and a better understanding that they are a major part of our future."
In May 1988, Kazimierz Kord, then Music Director of the Warsaw Philharmonic, was named Principal Guest Conductor and Music Advisor for the 1989-1990 season.
The orchestra also began its search for a new Music Director. Some established conductors, including Lawrence Foster, Sergiu Comissiona, Zdeněk Mácal, and Stuart Challender, were considered along with lesser known names, such as Christopher Seaman, Richard Buckley, Vakhtang Jordania, Toshiyuki Shimada, and Carl St.Clair. Kord repeatedly said that despite his new titled position, he was not a candidate.
The board had wanted a strong musician that would also be willing to spend significant time with the greater Orange County community. Since Zdeněk Mácal was a resident of nearby Laguna Niguel, California in addition to being a conductor with a strong resume, many considered him the early front-runner; however, he had a number of other positions already to his name, and his busy schedule was thought to be a likely deterrent. He pulled himself out of the running before the 1989-90 season began.
By late 1989, Lawrence Foster was the odds-on favorite to be named Music Director. In December 1989, the orchestra offered Foster the position, and he accepted in principle. Contract negotiations began, and Foster began planning his schedule and the orchestra's programs for the coming years. However, in February 1990, Foster revealed that the offer had been rescinded, largely due to concerns about his salary and level of commitment:
"I gave them a total package," Foster said. "I was given to understand that the board regarded it as too exorbitant." . . . "I am brokenhearted," he added. "From the very beginning I became extremely excited about the project. . . . But that is their right. It is their organization. I can't do anything about it." . . . "Besides the salary issue, Foster said, "There was some distrust about my commitment to building the orchestra, that I am regarded as a European person and would not be sufficiently committed here."
"I think they wanted more time, but it was impossible with my family commitments and my other activities," Foster said. "And I told them I wasn't able to move to Orange County. With my work in Europe, that would have been impossible. But my wife and I had gotten so excited about the possibility that we were considering moving back to the United States in a couple of years, to New York, so we could be midway between Southern California and Europe."
The news of the orchestra's decision to pull Foster's offer came on the heels of Carl St.Clair's debut with the orchestra on January 31 and February 1. By all accounts, the concerts went well; despite changes in programs, concert soloists, and concertmasters, his conducting was well received by musicians, board, and audience alike. Moreover, he had indicated a willingness to move to Orange County and seemed enthusiastic about being a part of the county's burgeoning arts and cultural scene.
On February 26, 1990, the orchestra named Carl St.Clair as its second Music Director, effective October 1 of that year.
In 2014-15, Music Director Carl St.Clair celebrates his 25th season with Pacific Symphony. St.Clair’s lengthy history with the Symphony solidifies the strong relationship he has forged with the musicians and the community. His continuing role also lends stability to the organization and continuity to his vision for the Symphony’s future.
During his tenure, St.Clair has become recognized for his musically distinguished performances, his commitment to building outstanding educational programs and his innovative approaches to programming. Among his creative endeavors are: the vocal initiative, “Symphonic Voice”; the creation of a series of multimedia concerts featuring inventive formats called “Music Unwound”; and the highly acclaimed American Composers Festival, which celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2014-15. And in 2013-14, under his leadership, the Symphony launched the new music festival, Wavelength, blending contemporary music and Symphony musicians in unique collaborations.
St.Clair’s commitment to the development and performance of new works by composers is evident in the wealth of commissions and recordings by the Symphony (more below).
In 2006-07, St.Clair led the orchestra’s historic move into its home in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The move came on the heels of the landmark 2005-06 season that included St.Clair leading the Symphony on its first European tour—nine cities in three countries playing before capacity houses and receiving extraordinary responses and reviews.
From 2008 to 2010, St.Clair was general music director for the Komische Oper in Berlin, where he led successful new productions such as La Traviata (directed by Hans Neuenfels). He also served as general music director and chief conductor of the German National Theater and Staatskapelle (GNTS) in Weimar, Germany, where he led Wagner’s Ring Cycle to critical acclaim. He was the first non-European to hold his position at the GNTS; the role also gave him the distinction of simultaneously leading one of the newest orchestras in America and one of the oldest in Europe.
In 2014, St.Clair assumes the position as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Costa Rica. His international career also has him conducting abroad several months a year, and he has appeared with orchestras throughout the world. He was the principal guest conductor of the Radio Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart from 1998 to 2004, where he completed a three–year recording project of the Villa–Lobos symphonies. He has also appeared with orchestras in Israel, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South America, and summer festivals worldwide.
In North America, St.Clair has led the Boston Symphony Orchestra, (where he served as assistant conductor for several years), New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, Indianapolis, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver symphonies, among many.
A strong advocate of music education for all ages, St.Clair has been essential to the creation and implementation of the Symphony’s education programs including Pacific Symphony Youth Ensembles, Sunday Connections, OC Can You Play With Us, arts-X-press and Class Act.
Pacific Symphony is dedicated to developing and promoting today’s young and established composers and expanding the orchestral repertoire. This commitment to new works is illustrated through the Symphony’s commissions and recordings, in-depth explorations of American artists and themes at the American Composer Festival and the Young American Composers Competition. The Symphony’s approaches to introducing new works to audiences received the prestigious ASCAP Award for Adventuresome Programming in both 2005 and 2010.
The 2013-14 season saw the continuation of a recent slate of recordings that began with two newly released CDs in 2012-13 featuring two of today’s leading composers, Philip Glass’ “The Passion of Ramakrishna” and Michael Daugherty’s “Mount Rushmore,” both the result of works commissioned and performed by the Symphony, with three more recordings due to be released over the next few years. These feature the music of Symphony-commissioned works by William Bolcom, “Songs of Lorca” and “Prometheus,” James Newton Howard’s “I Would Plant a Tree” and Richard Danielpour’s “Toward a Season of Peace.” The Symphony has also commissioned and recorded “An American Requiem,” by Danielpour, and Elliot Goldenthal’s “Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio” with Yo-Yo Ma. Other recordings have included collaborations with such composers as Lucas Foss and Toru Takemitsu. It has also commissioned such leading composers as Paul Chihara, Daniel Catán, William Kraft, Ana Lara, Tobias Picker, Christopher Theofanidis, Frank Ticheli and Chen Yi.
“Symphonic Voices,” an initiative to return opera back to Orange County after the demise of Opera Pacific, was inspired by Music Director Carl St.Clair’s career as an opera conductor in Europe. The initiative began with the successful debut in 2012 of a concert-opera production of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” followed in 2013 with Puccini’s “Tosca,” in 2014, with Verdi’s “La Traviata,” and in 2015 with Bizet’s “Carmen.” These semi-staged productions have the full orchestra onstage and have included world-class opera stars, Pacific Chorale, acting, staging, video elements, costumes and props.
For five years in a row, the Symphony has been offering three new innovative Music Unwound programs, designed to contextualize and enhance the musical experience. This series of enhanced concerts, underwritten by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, continues to deliver creative new formats and thematic programming as part of the concert experience. By creating contextual backdrops, Pacific Symphony endeavors to give the audience a better understanding and the music deeper meaning. In 2010, a study by the League of American Orchestras, “Fearless Journeys,” included the Symphony as one of the country’s five most innovative orchestras.
Pacific Symphony’s award-winning education programs are designed to integrate the symphony and its music into the Orange County community in ways that stimulate all ages and form strong, meaningful connections between students and the organization. Music Director and educator Carl St.Clair actively participates in the development and execution of these programs, which benefit from his vision. The orchestra’s Class Act residency program has been honored as one of nine exemplary orchestra education programs in the nation by the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Symphony Orchestra League. In addition to the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra, in 2007-08, St.Clair added to the list of programs the Pacific Symphony Youth Wind Ensemble and Pacific Symphony Santiago Strings, and in the summer of 2012, the Santa Ana Strings. Other community engagement programs include the series Sunday Connections and OC Can You Play With Us,1979-1988: Keith Clark
1990–present: Carl St.Clair
1989-1990: Doc Severinson
1991–present: Richard Kaufman
1989-1990: Kazimierz Kord
2002-2008: Michael Hall
2009–2012: Maxim Eshkenazy
2012-2015: Alejandro Gutierrez
2015-present: Roger Kalia