With tales of star-crossed lovers, guest conductor Carl St. Clair joins CSO for program of Prokofiev, Bernstein

Carl St Clair
St Clair

Tonight, Chautauquans have the chance to taste the divine through the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s “Timeless Love” program and impassioned classics by Sergei Prokofiev and Leonard Bernstein.

With guest conductor Carl St. Clair, the CSO will weave grand tales of love and tragedy at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater, with Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet Suite and Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite. 

Prokofiev completed Romeo and Juliet in 1935, taking inspiration from Shakespeare for an eclectic merging of classical formal structure, modern harmony, lyrical melody, toccata passages, and grotesque character. Bernstein’s West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet; it took Broadway by storm in 1957. 

St. Clair enjoyed a professional and personal relationship with the legendary conductor and composer himself; in 1985, St. Clair was a conducting fellow at Boston Symphony Orchestra, where Bernstein was his coach. St. Clair remembered first being introduced to Bernstein when playing a watered-down version of the West Side Story Suite in high school on his coronet, which he said Bernstein got a kick out of.

Mr. B. — St. Clair could never bring himself to call Bernstein “Lenny” as a lot of people did — always called St. Clair “Cowboy.” Spending the last five years of Bernstein’s life in the composer’s orbit was a honor for St. Clair, seeing “how many things mattered to him, and how he did what he could to help.”

Bernstein conducted the final concert of his career in the summer of 1990 with a program consisting of Benjamin Britten and Beethoven; he was supposed to premier his own Arias and Barcarolles, but he wasn’t breathing well due to cancerous mesothelioma in his lungs. St. Clair remembers sitting with Bernstein’s mother, 93, and watching him struggle to breathe, then having to step in as conductor in his place. 

“It’s now been 34 years, but his presence in my life and in so many musicians’ lives — especially those who played under his baton — is just continually inspired by him and motivated to carry forward,” St. Clair said. 

St. Clair is from the small town of Hochheim, Texas, where he remembers the impact of worship music at his church. One of the ways he would be calmed down as a young boy was by being put under his aunt’s piano while she played. He attributes his passion for music education to the public school system, as he was able to play a rented cornet — just $2 a month — at Yocum High School. 

St. Clair attributes the caliber of musical prestige that he has achieved to being “blessed with great teachers and people who saw something in (him) that they felt worth investing in,” which he hopes is “honesty.” Although music was always in his life — as a professor, coronet teacher, or musician — St. Clair didn’t even consider conducting until graduate school when he was told he had talent. 

“Conducting is a huge responsibility and opportunity to share your passion,” St. Clair said. “To have others gain respect for composers and for the art of music, for its powers of healing, and the ability to change lives is a great honor. I was kind of led to it, rather than me wanting it.”

This is St. Clair’s third trip to Chautauqua and he said it’s great to be back, not only due to his high regard for Maestro Rossen Milanov, but also because he believes in the Institution’s mission. 

“It’s imaginative, creative, and inspired,” St. Clair said. “How the community of Chautauqua has protected the atmosphere and wholesomeness is quite unique (in that) you’ve captured history and made it stand still while being on the cutting edge of creativity.”

St. Clair has always found that “the purpose of music is to share a communal experience” as a way to “offer feelings on the composer and music.”

“Bernstein used to say (paraphrased), ‘In the beginning there was a note and the note was with God,’ ” St. Clair said. “Whosoever reaches for that note — a composer — must reach high, for that person enters realms in which others do not have entrance to bring back sounds so we can taste the divine.”

The value of music is self-evident, and is needed now more than ever, St. Clair said.

“Music has never had a more important role to play in life with the shroud of angst and danger that seems to be veiling the earth these days,” he said. “There is a lot of good and we look for that — music is one of those bright spots in our existence.”

Tags : Carl St. ClairChautauqua Symphony OrchestracsoLeonard BernsteinRomeo and JulietSergei ProkofievTimeless LoveWest Side Story

The author Gabriel Weber

Gabriel Weber is a graduating senior who is majoring in journalism and minoring in philosophy along with political science at Ball State University. This is her first year as an intern at The Chautauquan Daily. She is thrilled to be covering the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Chautauqua Chamber Music; her experience as a mediocre cello and trumpet player provides a massive level of appreciation and respect for these talented artists. A staff writer for Ball Bearings at her university and previous writer for the Pathfinder, she is a native of Denver, raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Gabriel is currently based in Muncie, Indiana, with her (darling) cat Shasta; she enjoys collaging, reading and rugby.