The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Conductor Carl St. Clair talks about the popular appeal of Brahms, whose Symphony No. 3 he performs this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

March 6, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) will perform a warm program for a cold time by taking listeners from the chill of a Northern climate to a sunnier Spanish landscape.

The program and the pieces seem a perfect choice to transport listeners at this time of year.

Guest conductor Carl St. Clair, who heads the Pacific Symphony Orchestra near Los Angeles and who studied with Leonard Bernstein, will return to Madison to perform Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto Andaluz” with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. Also featured on the program are Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnole” and Johannes BrahmsSymphony No. 3.

Here is a link to St. Clair’s biography in Wikipedia:

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $13.50 to $78.50. You can go to the MSO website or call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

Here is a link to the MSO website for tickets, videos and more information:

Here is a link to downloadable program notes by J. Michael Allsen:

Though very busy and on tour, conductor St. Clair (below) recently gave The Ear an e-mail interview:

Why did you choose a Brahms symphony to conduct in Madison and why No. 3?

In talking with Maestro John DeMain about this program and the programming for the entire season for the MSO, he wanted to include the Symphony No. 3 of Johannes Brahms. As it turned out, the most appropriate position for this symphony on the season came during my week with the orchestra. And so it is.

Since the LA Guitar Quartet had already been engaged as soloists, this would be a complement in contrast to the music of Rodrigo and would offer the audience a broad spectrum of styles and colors to enhance their listening experience.

Further, to close the program and remain in keeping with the LA Quartet‘s style and musical language, we decided to close the program with an orchestral showpiece of “Capriccio espagnole” by Rimsky-Korsakov (below). This virtuosic orchestral work was, interestingly enough, composed in 1887, just four years after Brahms’ Third Symphony.

What qualities of Brahms especially attract you and why?

The musical signatures of Johannes Brahms are distinct and immediately luring. The lushness of his orchestrations and the richness of his harmonic sense is attractive to both the ear and the spirit.

At times, he spins long and song-like melodies and at others, simple Beethoven-like motivic cells which he tosses, turns and develops.  He is a composer of honest musical integrity, true to himself.

Do you recall when you first heard Brahms and the first played his music? What were your initial reactions to Brahms?

Though I had heard the music of Brahms before, it was an evening in Carnegie Hall with Maestro Herbert van Karajan (below) leading his Berlin Philharmonic performing all four of Brahms’ Symphonies, which marked the first time I really heard these masterworks for the first time.

They began with the Third and I was just in awe. The SOUND of the orchestra – the TONE, the FULLNESS – van Karajan! Oh, I was just in Himmel! Ever since that night, this is the sound I try to reproduce from the podium each time I conduct Brahms. Unforgettable!

What do you think makes Brahms (below) so appealing to you now, and to the general public?

I am always honored to have the opportunity to conduct any and all music of this great master. There was a six-year span of time between his Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 3. That said, he wasn’t just sitting around. During this period he composed other beloved favorites: Violin Concerto, the Piano Concerto No. 2, and both the “Tragic” and “Academic Festival” Overtures.

Each and every work of Brahms brings different joys and rewards to both performer and listener. They all reflect Johannes Brahms’ beautiful spirit. You know, he was 50 years old when he composed his F Major Symphony. He once wrote about himself: “Frei aber froh”! The idea of joy and freedom is what this great symphony offers us as reward.

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