Classical Music

Round Top Music Festival: 20 Questions With Carl St. Clair

A conversation with the conductor about music, “The Andy Griffith Show,” and being a native Texan.


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This weekend, Carl St. Clair conducts the 2016 Round Top Music Festival's closing concert by the Texas Festival Orchestra, featuring professional-level young musicians from conservatories across the country. The grand finale program includes Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor," featuring pianist James Dick, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10. The concert is Saturday, July 16, at 7:30 PM in Festival Concert Hall.

For this latest installment of "20 Questions From Round Top," Carl St. Clair answers 10 questions about the music and the festival in the audio interview above, and he answers 10 more questions about his life as a conductor, student of Bernstein and Texas native below:


1. What composer in history do you feel most connected to? That is, a composer whose music you not only love, but whose personality and sensibilities you relate to ... and could imagine being good friends with!

It would be an emotional thrill to have known Tchaikovsky or Mahler, who wore their musical hearts on their sleeves, and who shared their every feeling so openly in their music. To have stood in the shadows of Wagner or Strauss would have also been quite daunting. I did have the great honor of knowing the great American, Leonard Bernstein. However, it would have to be the deeply felt spirituality of Anton Bruckner, which draws me most closely into its grasp.

2. Happy belated birthday, Maestro! You were born on June 5th in Hochheim, Texas. What was it like growing up in this small Texas town?

Growing up on a farm in a community of 35 people or so – when everybody was at home – was a blessing. There, I learned most of the important life lessons which guide me to this day, regardless of where I am. My wife, Susan, asked me quite soon upon her first visit to Hochheim, “How did you ever get out of here?” I replied, “I got on the wings of music and flew out.”

3. You live in Laguna Beach. Tell me about your neighborhood. What's your typical day like?

Laguna Beach is a wonderful small town sitting on the Pacific Ocean’s sands. It is very culturally and artistically minded. Up until just a few years ago our high school teams were called “The Laguna Beach Artists.” I just had to move there!

4. In addition to your relationship with the Round Top Music Festival, you also work with the Immanuel and Helen Olshan Texas Music Festival in Houston (where you recently conducted their grand finale concert). What do you enjoy about working with young musicians at these summer festivals?

In one of my last conversations with Leonard Bernstein – Mr. B., as I called him – he said, “You have to give back!” He meant sharing my God-given talents with others. He meant young people. In working with younger, pre-professional musicians, I am honoring my promise to him, but am also fulfilling my own tenet of being an ambassador for and teacher of music.

5. You are the long-time Music Director of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, and the Principal Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica. How would you describe the personalities of each orchestra?

The PSO is a young 37-year-old orchestra. In its brief existence, it has grown to be the largest orchestra (in budget size) formed in America in the last half century. It is a vibrant, passionate ensemble of incredibly talented and dedicated musicians. We perform a broad spectrum of repertoire, genres including classical, operatic, ballet, pops, chamber and Baroque. We are Orange County’s orchestra and call the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall our home. The National Orchestra of Costa Rica is 76 years old and is the country’s beacon of artistic achievement. It, too, is an orchestra that performs with great passion and dedication. As the nation’s orchestra, we have the responsibility of sharing our music throughout the country’s cities and communities. The bottom line is that both orchestras strive for the highest degree of artistic integrity and are willing share their talents to enhance the lives of the people they serve, both young and old alike.

6. A fun fact about you is that Leonard Bernstein was your teacher at Tanglewood. Do you remember the first time you met him? What was he like as a teacher?

It was August of 1985 at "Seranak," the home of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky at Tanglewood, which is the summer home of the Boston Symphony. A day I’ll never forget. His teaching was one of guided self-discovery, not of being told how or what to do. He allowed us to catch a mere glimpse of music-making through his eyes. A world which I had never seen before. It changed the playing field forever. Thank you Mr. B. I’m still “giving back.”

7. Do you have any "guilty" pleasures?

After long nights on the podium, I like to watch re-runs on YouTube of The Andy Griffith Show. What a cast. What a message. Gotta love that Barney.

8. What was the first piece of classical music that you fell in love with (and why)?

Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony because Bernstein was conducting and the Boston Symphony was performing it. I was watching it on a black and white Westinghouse TV. I was supposed to go to a country and western dance that night, but was frozen in total captivity by him, it and all.

9. What goes through your mind after the final beat, once the performance is finished? (Joy? Relief? Exhaustion?)

Thanks be to God for blessing us with music.

10. What do you enjoy most about being a conductor?

Conducting, for me, is a calling, a life path. It has led me faithfully, and I have tried to honor it by working hard, being honest, being thankful and remaining humble.


Catherine Lu

Catherine Lu

Content Producer & Announcer

While growing up in Chicago and Houston, Catherine’s love for art, music and creative writing was influenced by her teachers and parents. She was once concertmaster of the Clear Lake High School Orchestra and a four-time violinist of the Texas All-State Symphony. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Catherine...

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