Interview: Carl St.Clair remembers Leonard Bernstein (Part 1)


Carl St.Clair was sitting at a table outside a popular cafe in downtown Laguna Beach when we met with him the other day. He had musical scores spread out on the table in front of him, and was marking up one of them for a performance the following weekend. He put them away and then went indoors to grab a cup of coffee before returning to talk.

The topic today was Leonard Bernstein, a teacher and mentor of St.Clair’s. The two of us have talked about Bernstein many times over the years, but always in passing and glancing efforts, never in one fell swoop like this. With the arrival of the centennial of Bernstein’s birth, it was time to get some of St.Clair’s Bernstein memories on record. He came loaded for bear.

Before a formal question was broached, he pulled out his phone. A stranger had recently sent him a pirated video of a rehearsal at Tanglewood on Saturday, Aug. 18, 1990, with the Boston Symphony and a young, dark-haired St.Clair. The piece being rehearsed was Bernstein’s “Arias and Barcarolles,” which would have its orchestral premiere the next day. Bernstein, who was sitting in the audience during the rehearsal, was too sick to lead it himself, so St.Clair got the call.

“I started rehearsing this 35-minute piece in overtime,” St.Clair says. “We were still changing notes, we were still figuring out harmonics.” There was a lot of work to be done, and not much time to do it. The next day, with Bernstein managing to conduct Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from “Peter Grimes” and Beethoven’s 7th, and St.Clair conducting “Arias and Barcarolles,” was Bernstein’s last concert. He would formally retire from conducting and die, age 72, less than two months later.


St.Clair first met Bernstein in 1985. But when asked about his first meeting, he goes back 13 years to a Friday night when he had come home for the weekend from college. Home was Hochheim, Texas, an unincorporated town in the Southeastern part of the state, population 36. While he was waiting for friends to pick him up and go to a country and western dance, St.Clair turned on his black-and-white TV and began turning channels. For some reason, the educational channel, KLRN, from Austin and San Antonio, was coming in clear that night and St.Clair saw the insignia of the Boston Symphony.

It was a broadcast from Tanglewood, Leonard Bernstein leading the BSO in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 on the annual Serge Koussevitzky Memorial Concert. St.Clair was struck by the golden tones of the announcer, whom he now imitates listing the particulars of the program. “I’m thinking the guy is speaking a foreign language,” St.Clair says.

“At that time I had never heard Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. I had never heard a professional orchestra. And I only knew Leonard Bernstein as the composer who wrote a piece for high school band called Suite from ‘West Side Story.’ I didn’t know he was the great maestro.”

St.Clair was immediately transfixed by what he was seeing and hearing. By the time the second movement came around, his friends showed up in a car, honking and yelling at him to come out to the dance. “I said you have to go without me, I have to stay here.”

The musicians of the Boston Symphony impressed him, especially the trumpet player. The Tchaikovsky impressed him, and left him in a daze by the end. But most of all, Bernstein impressed him. “I remember seeing this conductor thinking I’ve never seen anybody move like that or conduct or emote like that.” He had no inkling at the time that he would eventually study with Bernstein and become a close associate and even lead the Boston Symphony itself, with many of these same players still in the group.


St.Clair does remember the first time he actually met Bernstein, of course. At this time, the summer of 1985, he became a conducting fellow at Tanglewood, studying the art of conducting under the esteemed teacher Gustav Meier, who headed the program there. Bernstein had been a regular at Tanglewood for decades but had been away for a couple years. The conducting students awaited his return within the living room of Seranak, the former home of Koussevitzky on Tanglewood’s grounds. This was where the lessons were held. They saw Bernstein coming up the driveway.

“I was very nervous,” St.Clair says. “He comes into the room, and there’s a big double door and we’re all standing in total respect. He greeted Gustav, of course they had known one another. … But almost immediately he said, in this kind of Texas accent, or, in a Bostonian/Texas accent, ‘Where’s that cowboy from Texas? I’ve never met a cowboy from Texas who’s also a conductor.’” “Cowboy,” in fact, became Bernstein’s nickname for St.Clair, used to address him for the next five years.

Officially, St.Clair studied with Bernstein for just that one week in 1985. But in 1986, St.Clair became an assistant conductor with the Boston Symphony, and the association continued. Whenever Bernstein came to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, St.Clair was assigned as his assistant conductor. But he also became part of a small group of young conductors and musicians, a kind of entourage, who hung around and supported the maestro as well as gleaned wisdom from him. “Every second I was with him was a lesson,” St.Clair says.

Over the years, there were a lot of seconds. Early in 1986, eager to continue his association with Bernstein and on sabbatical from the University of Michigan, St.Clair traveled to Vienna to observe him rehearse and conduct the revised version of “The Quiet Place” at the Staatsoper. Initially, St.Clair thought he’d try to remain inconspicuous. He didn’t approach Bernstein about the visit, but Harry Kraut, Bernstein’s manager. Kraut gave the go ahead and told St.Clair to meet them in the lobby of the Staatsoper on the day of a rehearsal. At the given time, St.Clair stood against the wall of the lobby, hoping not to be noticed by Bernstein, as his entourage approached.

“I’m up against the wall, he gets literally in front of me, profiled, and without even looking at me, stops right in front of me and goes, ‘Cowboy, what the hell are you doing in Vienna?’ Then he looked at me and gave me a big hug and he says, ‘Come on, let’s go!’”

St.Clair saw Bernstein mostly during the summers. Though Bernstein begged St.Clair to call him for any advice he might need during the rest of the year, St.Clair didn’t want to waste Bernstein’s time. “I said to him, ‘There’s going to come a time in my life when the only person who’s going to be able to help me is going to be you. At that time I will have absolutely no problem calling you. But as long as somebody else can do that for me, I’m not going to bother you.’ I never made the call.”


“His teaching style was no imitation,” St.Clair says. “He never showed us. He wanted you to find it.”

Still, he had ways of making sure you did. St.Clair recalls rehearsing Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony with the orchestra at Schleswig-Holstein, where Bernstein had established a festival. Bernstein sat listening. “He sat at his table, didn’t say a word, didn’t interrupt, nothing.”

After about an hour, the rehearsal ended. “Cowboy, what are you doing for lunch?,” Bernstein said. St.Clair said he was free.

“Let’s go to the lake and have some bread and cheese and wine,” Bernstein said excitedly. “Hey, can you get the guys together? Oh, bring your score.”

And so, that afternoon, along with conductors Mark Stringer and Eiji Oue, St.Clair sat on a blanket by a lake, picnicking and combing through the score of the “Italian” Symphony.

“As much as I thought I knew and as hard as I had studied this score, when I got to see it through his eyes, with his knowledge, I realized how blind I really was,” St.Clair says. “We went through every measure and in every measure I learned something.”

Another time, in Leningrad, on a tour with Bernstein and several young conductors, he came off stage after conducting a performance. Bernstein was waiting in the wings and asked, “Cowboy, did you like the performance?” St.Clair said he thought the orchestra played beautifully. “Huh,” came Bernstein’s reply. “Why didn’t you show that? Why didn’t you show you were pleased?”

(Click here to read Part 2)

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