A conductor shares his views on wielding a baton. Carl St. Clair guides students in podium skills
Boston — No tux, no tails. At the moment the only thing that would tell you Carl St. Clair is a conductor is the baton in his hand, which he wields deftly both in the classroom and on the podium. And it is through his teaching that one begins to understand a conductor's rich world on the other side of the podium. This conductor in white sneakers moves energetically among the music stands and pianos in a classroom of the New England Conservatory of Music. To the rhythm of thumping radiators and squeaking chairs, he admonishes, corrects, and encourages his students.
He stops a young woman struggling to conduct two pianists through a Beethoven piece. Gently but firmly he sits her down at one of the pianos. ``Now play the phrase you just conducted.''
Thanks to her extensive training in piano, she can comply beautifully. He compliments her, then turns to the rest of the group and says, ``If you love Beethoven, there is no way you will conduct it without expression. You must show some feeling that you have about the phrase. It is the passionate love of music that makes people follow you.''
This love of music - along with a strong sense of discipline and hard work - characterizes Mr. St. Clair's approach to music and underpins his work as an assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and as a director of the symphony's youth concerts.
In an interview, St. Clair shared some of his thoughts about the art of conducting a symphony orchestra.
``I think first is [the question of] what motivates the conductor's movements? Does this movement look genuine or honest? Is it a choreographed move? Or is it inspired by an inner sound and an inner passion to have that sound be produced by the performers? ... If the gesture is motivated through a choreographic `this would look good to the audience' kind of feeling, the musicians would know it's not honest, it's not genuine.''
St. Clair has high regard for professional musicians and their ability to interpret a conductor's signals.
``Orchestras are fantastic about being able to read the hands of a conductor,'' he says. ``Especially in almost any of the standard repertoire. They're so familiar with the parts and the music that they are really free to ... listen carefully to the rest of their colleagues in the orchestra, to listen to a conductor speaking to them.''
But are there ever times when an orchestra seems to resist a conductor's approach?
St. Clair pauses for a moment, then says, ``Of course, orchestras have ways they like to do things.''
So how does a conductor get the players to do things his or her way?
St. Clair draws back from the idea that a conductor's role is to manipulate an orchestra. For him, conducting is ``an action-reaction cycle of energy that goes on. You give a sign, they reply with a sound. And sometimes the sound matches what you wanted to hear; sometimes it doesn't.
``Sometimes all you need to do to make it match is to give a little response to their response, and it's fixed.''
Motomasa Saito, one of the conducting students, is not only impressed by St. Clair's technique, but he says he learns a great deal as a ``bystander'' when the conductor works with others in the class. ``I've been following him around for months.... His energy is limitless - I just don't believe it.''
Deborah Cundey, a second-year student of choral conducting, says her teacher's technique is ``almost dancelike.'' She adds, ``Carl has a real gift for teaching....''
St. Clair, a native of Texas, earned his masters degree in opera and orchestral conducting at the University of Texas, Austin. He has taught at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
In 1986, during his second summer as a conducting fellow at Tanglewood - the BSO's summer home - St. Clair got his big conducting break when he replaced an ailing guest conductor, Gennady Rozhdestvensky. On two hours notice, he conducted two performances.
St. Clair, who stands by at rehearsals and performances as part of his assistant conductor job, recalled that on the night of the Rozhdestvensky performance, he almost went to a pre-concert barbecue with friends instead of looking over the music one more time. But he changed his mind.
``Something just said, `You know, this is unfamiliar music to you; it's not as though all the tunes lie so well in your ear, and maybe you should just stay at home and do this [look over the score]. I have no idea what inner voice told me that, but I'm one who tries to listen to these little inner voices when they speak; I've learned to trust them.''
A few weeks ago when St. Clair made his conducting debut (this time scheduled) with the Boston Pops, the Boston Globe said he ``sparkled'' and ``did a terrific job.''
In class, the energetic young conductor tries to describe to his students the complex hearing process they must cultivate. A conductor, he says, must do three things simultaneously. He must hear what was just played and analyze it, he must listen to the score in his head and relate it to what he is conducting at the moment, and he must also anticipate what is happening in the next passage so he can ``cue'' the orchestra if necessary.
Just how does a conductor ``hear symphonies in his head''?
From listening to St. Clair, one would conclude that whole orchestral arrangements are as retrievable from his memory as advertising jingles and pop tunes are to the average person. It's a matter of desire, training, and experience.
``For me, music doesn't relate to life, music is life. It's a way of living. ... Some people work so they can live the way they want to, and some people live so they can do the work they'd like to do.''