Conducting Through Time: From Beethoven to Bernstein
By Music Director Carl St.Clair
During the 2023-24 season I’m conducting four subscription concerts: opening weekend’s “A Hero’s Life” by Richard Strauss and closing weekend’s Beethoven’s Ninth; Brahms Symphony No. 1 in February, as well as our opera of the year, Puccini’s La Bohème in April. I want to talk a little bit about why I put those on my 34th season and the orchestra’s 45th.
When I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin, I was under the tutelage and mentorship of Dr. Walter Ducloux. I commented to him that one day I hoped to claim my rightful lineage from him going back to the great Arturo Toscanini, who Ducloux had worked closely with. He took me by the shoulders and pulled me very close, saying “My dear young man, I think I forgot to tell you that my closest friend in Vienna when I was a student there, played in the cello section for Johannes Brahms.”
So what does that actually mean? That means when I shook hands with Dr. Ducloux—who shook hands with his friend in Vienna, who then shook hands with Johannes Brahms after a rehearsal and says, “Maestro Brahms, thank you for a great rehearsal”—I was only three handshakes away from a great master of the German Romantic tradition!
I realized at the very beginning of my career that I needed to discover, cherish, and really bring to the forefront this musical heritage. Shortly after finishing my training with Dr. Ducloux, I worked closely with Leonard Bernstein. On Aug. 19, 1990, I conducted the last concert of Bernstein’s life as a conductor. I remember that Bernstein had filled in for Bruno Walter, who was a close friend of Gustav Mahler. When I conduct Mahler, I’m literally only two handshakes away from that composer.
I’m conducting Puccini’s La Bohème and Arturo Toscanini premiered that work. I am so close to all this music, even though I’m eons away in time. All of these great mentors that I’ve had—all important heroes for me—have really contributed to who I am as an artist. When I conduct the music of Richard Strauss, I have to remember Dr. Ducloux heard Richard Strauss conduct his own works in Munich.
As we delve into the richness of this season, it’s worth reflecting on the extraordinary tapestry of connections that tie us to the very origins of the music we love. My journey through the world of conducting has afforded me the incredible privilege of being only a few handshakes away from the titans of the 19th-century Romantic era. Through mentors like Dr. Walter Ducloux and Leonard Bernstein, I’ve inherited a lineage that connects me to the very souls who breathed life into these masterpieces. When I take to the podium to lead Pacific Symphony through the works of Strauss, Beethoven, Brahms, or Puccini, know that you’re not just hearing notes— you’re experiencing a living tradition, a reverberating echo from the past, rendered vivid and immediate through our collective musicianship.
In each performance, my hope is that we bridge time and space, connecting you not just to the music but also to the very essence of its creators. Thank you for being an essential part of this ongoing musical conversation,