Conductor sets out to unite audience’s hearts and minds

St. Clair conducts a performance in the Walt Disney Concert Hall (Photo courtesy of Dario Griffin)

Before the Thornton School of Music was even called the Thornton School of Music, Maestro Carl St. Clair was conducting at USC. 

St. Clair began teaching when he was just 24 years old and now has over 42 years teaching across the country. His fascination with music began at a young age when he started taking piano lessons from his aunt as a mere 6-year-old.

“I gravitated toward music very early in my life,” said St. Clair, who taught himself how to play the trumpet. “It’s become my life partner. It’s a talent that God gave me and my gift back to him is how I utilize it.”

St. Clair’s talent has allowed him to travel the world conducting various symphonies. He has conducted for the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra in Damascus, the Beijing Philharmonic behind the walls of the Forbidden City and various student orchestras. Each eclectic performance shaped St. Clair’s philosophy of music.

“The music spoke to the musicians and the audience and got the same exact reaction,” St. Clair said, “which only proved to me that there is a connective essence to music, that it is a universal language and can speak to all people of all walks of life.”

St. Clair believes the  audience is an integral part of a symphonic performance and the canvas on which the musicians and conductor display their passion for music. Without the audience, the craft of a symphony would go unappreciated.

“Part of our job when we have an audience is to perform great works of music in a way which when the audience leaves, they’re a different individual,” St. Clair said. “We want to bring our passion to them. We want to play with all our hearts so that their hearts are changed.”

Such a goal cannot be accomplished without top notch performers who perform with purpose and honesty. With the right musicians, St. Clair believes the audience will take something home with them after the curtains have closed — something that makes an audience member more mature, thoughtful and informed. St. Clair has absolute confidence in the ability of Thornton students to engage and inspire audiences.

“The students at the Thornton School of Music are at a noticeably higher level of technical proficiency than [the students] we were back when I went to college at UT Austin,” St. Clair said.

With fast-paced modern times, St. Clair recognizes how the presentation of music has to change — without altering the music itself — to better engage and inspire the modern audience.

“Keep it fresh, keep it inspirational, keep it motivational so that as the times change, our musical world has to also evolve,” St. Clair said. “It’s not so much that the music changes, but what changes is the presentation.”

Throughout St. Clair’s years of experience, global travels and teaching the talented students he conducts, he has maintained his faith in the unifying power that music has. He remembers the profound experience he had performing Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony and the piece’s lasting effect. 

“[The music] touched everybody’s soul in a very similar way,” St. Clair said. “The same music, those same notes [are] performed by the performers and also for the audiences. And so I would say that it’s a lesson in the importance of music as a connector of lives and as a connector of hearts.”