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Laguna Beach is music to Carl St. Clair's ears

Pacific Symphony conductor Carl St.Clair calls Laguna Beach his “Garden of Eden.”

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St.Clair's first job was teaching music at Southern Illinois University and he continues to work with young people in Orange County.

For his sixth birthday, Carl St.Clair received piano lessons, a gift that surprised him but certainly did not thrill him. “Studying piano wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned,” recalls St.Clair, who was a farm boy in the tiny town of Hochheim (pop. 36), Texas, south of Austin. The lessons were life-changing, however, setting him on a path toward becoming music director of Orange County’s Pacific Symphony, an orchestra post St.Clair has held for 25 years.

Not that classical music entranced him immediately. During high school, St.Clair was a band member and singer who was proficient on the trumpet and keyboards, but his tastes ran to rock ’n’ roll: the Doors, Joni Mitchell, Jefferson Airplane. The first time he heard a symphony orchestra was when he performed in the Texas all-state student ensemble before an audience of thousands in Dallas.  

A major break occurred in 1985, when St.Clair became a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, an academy in Massachusetts affiliated with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He befriended the Boston Pops’ legendary conductor, composer John Williams, who was instrumental in steering St.Clair to the Pacific Symphony.

Devoutly Catholic, St.Clair, now 63, credits a strong faith for helping him and his wife, Susan, cope with the loss of their first child, Cole, who died as a toddler in 1999. The couple’s two other children, Siena and Cade, are teens. St.Clair, whose conducting duties have taken him around the world – he lived for a time in Germany, and currently commutes as director of the Costa Rica national orchestra – voices great appreciation for family life, recalling that he expected to be a permanent bachelor when he moved west and bought a condo near the surf in Laguna Beach in 1994.

Knocking one day on the property manager’s door, he was startled when the manager’s sister, visiting from Palm Springs, answered the door. “A beautiful young lady,” St.Clair recalls. “She had just come off the beach and was standing there in her swimwear. I just went,  ‘Whoa!’ ” He laughs. “The idea of having the ultimate bachelor pad didn’t pan out.”
My neighborhood: Laguna Beach.

Why I live there: It’s certainly a community which embraces the artist. We have the Festival of Arts and the Sawdust Festival and the Pageant of the Masters. Almost every door is an art gallery. It’s a place I feel very at home and welcome.

My perfect day: Cooking breakfast for my children while my wife gets an extra half an hour of sleep, taking the kids to school, coming back and taking a walk in Heisler Park. Having a cup of coffee and doing a crossword puzzle. Of course, there’s always the phone ringing. Having lunch, picking up the kids, taking them to whatever after-school activity. Having an opportunity to rehearse with the Pacific Symphony in the evening. Coming home, having dinner, a nice glass of wine. That’s a pretty ideal day.

My sanctuary: There’s a beautiful walkway that I love to take which is down on the beach by the Montage hotel. It’s serene and quiet and you can look out at the ocean and Catalina Island.

iPhone or Android? Android. The reason I have an Android is that everyone else in my family has an iPhone. None of my chargers work on their phones. I always know where my stuff is.

What’s on your nightstand? Very often my Android phone is next to my bed. Because of the time difference around the world, people call me at night – and also it’s my alarm clock. And I always keep some poetry. The book I have now is a big book of poetry in German. It helps me stay up on the language.

Favorite get-away destination: Staying at home. I spend so much time on the road. Very often we find ourselves on vacation and we say, “Why are we here? We’d be better off being back home.” If I didn’t have to go outside the city limits of Laguna, I probably never would.

Favorite late-night haunt: My own patio. It’s beautiful. It overlooks the ocean and always has a wonderful breeze.

Red wine or white? Red.

Dodgers or Angels? Angels.

Clippers or Lakers? Clippers.

Best celebrity encounter? At one point, after a concert, I was standing in the doorway of the dressing room of John Williams, who’s a dear friend. One moment I was talking with John, the next moment I was talking with Kobe Bryant. That was pretty cool. Although I’m not an ardent Lakers fans, I recognize the greatness of his athleticism. And I know he cares about the arts – he comes to a lot of ballets, concerts and benefits.

Favorite city outside of California? Bellagio, a beautiful, tiny little Italian town on Lake Como. It’s a place we went every summer while living in Germany. For our family, it has special memories – watching the kids splash around in the lake, walking the streets and having gelato. Just summer fun.

Your pet peeve? My only grapple with the city of Laguna is the cellphone service. If they could just get better cell service, it would be the perfect Garden of Eden.

Your favorite piece of music? No, I can’t answer that one. That’s like asking which is your favorite child. Whatever I’m performing at the moment is my favorite piece of music. As a matter of fact, it’s the only piece of music that exists.


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