From Fullerton’s Plummer Auditorium to the celebrated stages of Europe, China, and Carnegie Hall, Pacific Symphony is an orchestra whose time has come
Jimmy Carter was president, “All in the Family” won big at the Emmys, disco was still popular and the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. There was no cable or cell phones or personal computers. People read newspapers, on paper, delivered by kids on bicycles. We’re talking 1978, 40 years ago.
That was also the year that Pacific Symphony was founded. I was attending high school in Fountain Valley, a trombonist with hopes for the future. In March, a group of community leaders in northern Orange County led by Marcy Mulville got together with the Cal State Fullerton conductor Keith Clark to form what they would initially call the Pacific Chamber Orchestra (changed a couple years later to Pacific Symphony Orchestra). I didn’t hear about it at the time, but soon enough, Forrest Gump-like, if you will, my own musical path would begin intersecting with the orchestra’s at significant points in its history. When I look back on my life, the Symphony plays a big and recurring part.
My introduction to the group came in the early 1980s. A music major at USC, I was asked to sub as second trombone in performances, if memory serves, of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Brahms’s Requiem led by Clark. This was in the days when the orchestra performed at Santa Ana High School. For most of the rest of the 1980s, though, we went our separate ways. I was off to work in a band at the EPCOT Center in Florida, then went to study music criticism at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Under Clark, the orchestra made a series of recordings of mostly neglected American repertoire (still in print), but continued as a part-time, freelance ensemble. Perhaps, its most significant moment of the decade was a negative one. At the opening of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in 1986, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed instead of the up-and-coming local orchestra. Its time had not arrived.
By the 1989-1990 season, Pacific Symphony was in search of a new music director. I had recently started writing for the Los Angeles Times as a freelance music critic and had been assigned to review the candidates for the job, who would take turns guest conducting the orchestra throughout the year. On Jan. 31, 1990, a young conductor trained by Leonard Bernstein, Carl St.Clair, auditioned for the position, and I was in the audience reviewing for the Times. “It was time again for another tryout Wednesday at Segerstrom Hall, and conductor Carl St.Clair made the most of the opportunity,” I wrote. “As the latest candidate for the Pacific Symphony’s music director position, St.Clair, an assistant conductor for the Boston Symphony, was a compelling presence.” A few weeks later, he was named the next music director.
Throughout the 1990s, I continued to review the orchestra regularly for the Times and then, beginning in 1998, for The Orange County Register. St.Clair was busy building up the orchestra, increasing the number of its performances, commissioning new music and continuing with recording. At the Register, the orchestra was the centerpiece of my beat and I reviewed its entire season, interviewed guest artists and St.Clair as well. In 2000, he instituted the annual American Composers Festival, which quickly became one of the highlights of the concert season here, and a pleasure to write about.
The year 2006 marked a turning point. The orchestra made its first European tour, with stops in Munich, Lucerne, Cologne, Vienna and elsewhere, and a certain music critic was embedded for the ride. (I started my career as a blogger during that trip.) Among other things, the European tour, with its first-class concert halls, helped prepare the musicians to open — this time they got the call — the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in September, which they did with newly-commissioned pieces by William Bolcom and Philip Glass, star soloists Midori and Plácido Domingo, and a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. It was a big moment for Pacific Symphony and Orange County, and part of my beat to report on it.
In 2013, I finally performed with the orchestra again, as part of the orchestra’s OC Can You Play With Us? initiative, during which amateurs were seated side-by-side with members of Pacific Symphony. St.Clair conducted the finale of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and I once more played the second trombone part. I could now say that I had performed under every music director the orchestra has ever had.
Carnegie Hall beckoned St.Clair and the orchestra in 2018, inviting them to make their debut in the venue with Glass’s “The Passion of Ramakrishna,” commissioned in 2006 for the opening of Segerstrom Concert Hall, recorded in 2011 by these musicians and now being performed in New York for the first time. The hall was sold out; the New York Times called the group “a major ensemble.” A month later, they jumped in a plane (and trains and buses) and made their first tour of China, where audiences responded joyously.
I went along, but not as a critic. Now, as the 40th season begins, Pacific Symphony is the largest-budgeted U.S. orchestra founded in the last half century. It’s come a long way. These days, it even has its own writer-in-residence. Me.