A Life Experience in E minor

Image: Music Director for Pacific Symphony Carl St.Clair greets the students before the masterclass rehearsal at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

UCI Symphony Orchestra performs in a masterclass with Pacific Symphony Music Director Carl St.Clair

By Greg Hardesty

On a recent evening, Savanna Jolie Nygard took her seat on stage inside the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

As principal flutist for the UCI Symphony Orchestra, the fourth-year music major had recently performed Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor under the direction of UCI Symphony conductor Dr. Geoffrey Pope.

This version of the performance would be different.

I caught a glimpse of the professional musical life I’m currently working toward, and I ate up every second of it.

The $230-million concert hall in Costa Mesa was empty, save for her fellow performers and the special guest, dressed in all black, who genially stepped up to the podium to conduct: Carl St.Clair, music director of the Pacific Symphony.

The solo in the fourth movement of Symphony No. 4 is a jewel in the flute repertoire. Many auditioning musicians play it to win a seat in a professional orchestra.

That is Nygard’s dream.

She had been working on the flute solo since high school, and now she was ready to play with an internationally regarded conductor who has been music director of the Pacific Symphony for more than three decades.

As a select group of patrons who support both UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts and the Pacific Symphony watched from behind the stage facing St.Clair, the maestro with the distinctive longish silver hair thrust himself into the first strains of the 10-minute movement, displaying with his trademark gusto the dynamic dance between gesture and sound.

I’m convinced that the roots of what we’re doing as an orchestra, and the audience and musicians, are emanating from higher education.

For Nygard and the other UCI students, the exclusive rehearsal on Dec. 5 was a rare and precious opportunity to participate in a masterclass with the maestro — the collaborative fruits of more than a year of planning between UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts Dean Tiffany López and Pacific Symphony President & CEO John Forsyte.

“I caught a glimpse of the professional musical life I’m currently working toward,” Nygard said, “and I ate up every second of it.”


Pope, director of the UCI Symphony Orchestra since 2022, said the evening marked an important milestone in the growing partnership between the CTSA and the Pacific Symphony.

“He’s a phenomenal conductor, musical interpreter and human being,” Pope said of St.Clair.

One of López’s main goals since becoming dean of the CTSA in July 2022 is what she calls “creative wayfinding,” or creating opportunities and pathways for students’ success.

The open rehearsal was an example of López’s mission, made possible by CTSA supporters including Charlie and Ling Zhang, the Claire Trevor Society, and Friends of the UCI Symphony. The masterclass was preceded by a private reception for a select group of donors.

Forsyte called the evening a rare opportunity for student musicians to elevate their understanding and appreciation of phrasing, balance, articulation and other interpretative elements of classical music.

Michael Dessen, chair of the Department of Music in the CTSA and a composer and trombonist, said the rehearsal allowed students to explore the depths of one of the great orchestra works of the 19th century while witnessing firsthand a top professional’s approach to conducting.

Image: (left to right) Dean Tiffany López, John Forsyte and Michael Dessen before the masterclass rehearsal. (Photo Will Tee Yang)

Nygard called the experience priceless.

“I really resonated with Maestro St.Clair's explanations and analogies,” said Nygard, who is applying to graduate school for a master of music in flute performance.

“With one simple metaphor, he was able to convey exactly what the orchestra needed to hear to improve our technique, listening skills and conscious playing,” she added.

St.Clair used many metaphors, including, in one section, his instruction for musicians to sound like a pelican landing on water.

“It’s like glass,” St.Clair said of the smooth sound.

At another time, he told the musicians that instead of sounding like a pin popping a balloon, imagine a pin being thrust into a pumpkin.

And in yet another metaphor, St.Clair said the sound should be like the glow of a coal in a campfire after you gently blow on it.

Image: Savanna Jolie Nygard performs on the flute during the masterclass rehearsal. (Photo: Will Tee Yang)


St.Clair, 71, remained highly engaged with the students during the two-plus-hour rehearsal, dispensing along the way such nuggets as:

This concert hall was born for music.

What color are you trying to make?

Winds, you’ve got to play louder. You’re no longer using your "inside voices."

Keep going in this direction. We’re starting to sound like a Brahms orchestra.

It’s so great when we can use our ears rather than our eyes.

You’re taking what I say to heart. I love it!

“When you work with Maestro St.Clair,” Nygard said, “there’s no escaping his passion. He is so boldly dedicated, and I couldn’t help but absorb some of that energy. He helped me bring that solo to life, and he gave me the freedom to nurture it.” López said she’s proud of the work of the UCI musicians.

“This event is all about optimizing the relationship and resources between UCI and the Pacific Symphony,” the dean said.

Image: Carl St.Clair conducting the UCI Symphony Orchesra. (Photo: Will Tee Yang)


Forsyte, who has run the Pacific Symphony for 25-plus years, praised López as a dean who is encouraging and open to collaborating with community partners.

“I’m convinced that the roots of what we’re doing as an orchestra, and the audience and musicians, are emanating from higher education,” Forsyte said.

Dessen noted that a “side-by-side” symphony, in which UCI students will play alongside Pacific Symphony professionals, is planned for early 2024.

“It will be a really incredible event for our students to have the experience of sitting right next to these professional musicians,” he said.

Nygard said her experience with St.Clair allowed her and her peers to approach Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 from different angles and dissect it collaboratively.

“It was a very enriching process for all of us,” she said. “Apart from his invaluable insight on technique and phrasing, I really appreciated how he encouraged me to make a statement as an artist.”

Just before a break in the rehearsal, St.Clair addressed the small group of patrons observing.

“Do you see how much detail goes into this?” he asked.

The observers clapped in appreciation.

This is the first step of hopefully many open rehearsals that will really ignite a firm and fruitful and rewarding experience...

“It’s been a long time coming,” St.Clair said in an interview during a break. “This is the first step of hopefully many open rehearsals that will really ignite a firm and fruitful and rewarding experience for both the symphony and all the students at UCI. We have so much in common — it’s a natural collaboration.”

Nygard said she hopes to have the opportunity to work with St.Clair again. She has applied to the USC Thornton School of Music, where St.Clair is the artistic leader and principal conductor of the USC Thornton Orchestras.

She said she’ll return to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

“Someday I’ll play that hauntingly beautiful solo and those seats will be filled,” Nygard said, “and I will become that voice soaring over the orchestra like I see in my dreams.”

Image: Dean Tiffany López and Carl St.Clair share a moment with two of the evening’s underwriters, Dean’s Arts Board members and founding co-chairs of the Claire Trevor Society Cheryll and Richard Ruszat. (Photo: Will Tee Yang)

Through St. Clair’s 34 years of leadership, Pacific Symphony has evolved into a top-tier orchestral institution, attracting world-class musicians, commissioning numerous new works, and debuting at Carnegie Hall and in China to great acclaim in 2018. In previous years, Pacific Symphony has collaborated with the Claire Trevor Department of Dance on a celebration of the 100th Anniversary of The Rite of Spring.

Future collaborations between Pacific Symphony and the UCI Symphony will provide students with the opportunity to be coached and perform side-by-side with members of Pacific Symphony. This represents a natural step in affording aspiring professionals a glimpse of the speed and virtuosity of members of a major orchestra.

To learn more about the students and faculty in the Department of Music, visit music.arts.uci.edu.

To learn more about ways to support CTSA, contact Sarah Strozza, Senior Director of Development, at 949-824-0629 or sstrozza@uci.edu.

Please visit our secure direct giving page and make a gift to support Music today!

Make a Gift

CONNECT - Winter 2024

Jump to Story