The first time I saw Carl St Clair conduct the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica, (Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Costa Rica), the performance was held at Teatro Meliko Salizar, just a few blocks west of the National Theater, the real home of the Orchestra. The occasion was the opening concert of the 2013 season, and the director was a question mark– the new guy on the block. The previous director had been dismissed.
St Clair struck me as elfin: on stage, he looks smaller than he is in person, but it wasn’t merely that he appeared diminutive— his silky collar-length blond hair and impish grin also contributed to my impression.
Before he could bring his baton down for the first stroke, church bells across the street began to peal. We in the audience held our collective breath, but the conductor turned from side to side, beaming at the orchestra and finally, at us. He appeared delighted, rather than annoyed, at the musical competition from the church — the perfect conductor for Costa Rica, land of Pura Vida.
When I received the luncheon invitation from Grace Woodman, an expat dynamo who volunteers with the Symphony and myriad other organizations here, I accepted with alacrity. If I’d been asked to lunch with Ricardo Muti, I couldn’t have been more jazzed– well, perhaps a little more…
Twenty lucky season’s ticket holders were chosen for the first lunch with the conductor, who, it turns out, was curious about his audiences, and so suggested the get-togethers as a way to exchange ideas and information.
Maestro St Clair talked a little of his experiences: before Costa Rica, he’d conducted several orchestras in Germany, but that was too far from his home in California, where he has led the Pacific Coast Orchestra since 1990. Luckily for us, Costa Rica is just a five-hour flight for him.
My memory for facts is abysmal, so I’ve relied on this information from Schmit Artists International for more details: … an active guest conductor, Carl St. Clair has led the Boston Symphony (where he served as assistant conductor for several years), Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and the symphonies of Atlanta, Detroit, Fort Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Montreal, Nashville, San Francisco, Sarasota, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver, to name a few.
Worldwide, he has guest conducted numerous orchestras in Europe, South America, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Japan. Summer festival appearances include Schleswig-Holstein, Pacific (Japan), Round Top, Breckenridge, Wintergreen (Virginia), Texas Music Festival/ Houston, and Tanglewood.
It was at Tanglewood, if memory serves, where he met Leonard Bernstein, who mentored him thereafter, and remained an important influence.
After lunch, St Clair’s introduction, and a few words from Guillermo Madriz Salas, the General Director of the National Center of Music (Centro Nacional de la Música), we were allowed to ask questions. Since curiosity is my middle name, I had a few.
At my request, he spoke about his relationships with orchestras: he doesn’t stay unless they sustain a mutual admiration society; his efforts to educate youth; and the number of female musicians in the orchestra.
That last question has been on my mind since I first attended a concert here. A full fifty percent of the players are women. That amazed me. He replied that more women in orchestras are a worldwide trend: as less funding is available for musicians, fewer men want the jobs, allowing the ladies to work. Not a happy thought for this feminist, but nonetheless it’s good to see women on stage. And he was careful to explain that musicians are auditioned behind a screen, so that hiring decisions are based on talent.
Before we left the luncheon, I approached the man on whom I’ve had a little crush since that first performance at Meliko Salizar, and mentioned how that moment had enchanted me. He, of course, remembered it, and rewarded me with a hug!
Next season, our seats will be closer to the stage, since what we pay for all twelve concerts is about equal to the price of a single performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra; and I want to have a better view of that magical smile.
If you live in Costa Rica, you may contact Grace Woodman, firstname.lastname@example.org, for information on season’s tickets for the 2016 season. Tickets are available before the concert at the box office. Here is a link for further information on tickets and times. The season runs from the beginning of March until the end of November, and in case you’ve never seen the orchestra, there are two more Sunday morning concerts this month, on November 15th and 29th.
Yes. I said Sunday morning concerts! For us old folks who live in the hinterlands, this performance is a gift that means we don’t have to navigate the mountains late at night. The concert begins at 10:30 AM, and you can catch an excellent meal before or after the performance at Alma de Cafe, in the National Theater.