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2023's Top 5 Moments in Theater, Dance and Classical Music

Updated: Jan 2

South Coast Repertory's 2023 world premiere of "avaaz" was written and performed by Michael Shayan. Photo courtesy of SCR/Jenny Graham

The year 2023 is rapidly coming to an end. But while we box up assorted gifts and prepare for 2024, let’s take a moment to reflect on the best in arts and culture this past year in Orange County – and in some cases, beyond.

Here we present our arts writers’ top five best – or most notable – moments in classical music, theater and dance. On Friday, we’ll look at the top five in food and drinks, visual arts and culture.

Happy New Year everybody! From all of us at Culture OC.    

The Year in Classical Music

2023 was a year of transitions in the world of classical music. The search is on for a successor to longtime music director Carl St.Clair at Pacific Symphony, and Los Angeles began saying its long goodbye to Gustavo Dudamel, the former wunderkind who cemented the reputation of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the years following his arrival in 2009. The year was marked, if not dominated, by a flurry of announced departures from top local jobs: Jerry Mandel from the Irvine Barclay Theatre, Andrew Brown from Pacific Chorale, Richard Bryant from the Musco Center.

It was also a year of recovery, when audiences – fitfully, but in growing numbers – began to return to the concert hall to see artists who were finally touring again and the scene began to return to pre-pandemic vitality, albeit with more cautious programming than before. World-class performers and ensembles visited regularly, and there were many standouts.

Here are five noteworthy local events from 2023. – Paul Hodgins

Carl St.Clair conducting early in his career, left; St.Clair conducting during the opening concert of the 2023-2024 season. Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony
Carl St.Clair leaves Pacific Symphony

Carl St.Clair, the Pacific Symphony’s longtime music director, is leaving his post, probably at the end of the 2023-24 season, although he could stay longer if necessary. He is only the second person to occupy that position, succeeding founding conductor Keith Clark in 1990. St.Clair, 71, will continue his association with the symphony after his present contract ends, although the nature of the relationship has not been revealed. A succession of guest conductors began appearing in the fall, many if not all of them presumably vying for St.Clair’s job.

Gustavo Dudamel leaves the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel, the gifted young Venezuelan wunderkind who led the Los Angeles Philharmonic to new levels of artistic achievement, announced in February that he will leave L.A. to join the New York Philharmonic in 2026 when his present contact expires. Dudamel told the Los Angeles Times that the decision to leave was “extremely complex and difficult.” He promised that his focus and heart will stay here until he makes his historic move.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall during his farewell tour with the group in 2023. Credit: Photo courtesy of Philharmonic Society of Orange County/© Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony at Segerstrom Hall (Jan. 24)

Muti, 81, is in his final season with the Chicago Symphony, and this concert reminded us why it continues to hold an esteemed position among the world’s orchestras. Chicago’s sound always gives the impression of immense power that’s tightly controlled, pristinely accurate and purposeful. And the program – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Anatoly Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake and Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition  –  was clearly chosen to allow Muti and the orchestra an opportunity to demonstrate their strengths. They didn’t disappoint.

Seong-Jin Cho. Photo courtesy of Soka Performing Arts Center
Seong-Jin Cho at Soka PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (Dec. 5)

Sometimes it’s difficult to keep all the amazingly talented Asian piano virtuosi straight in your mind, but Seong-Jin Cho certainly has the potential to reach Yuja Wang status. His ambitious program, which combined Mozart, Haydn, Ravel and some of Liszt’s most challenging repertoire, gave the 29-year-old South Korean a chance to showcase his talents for searing virtuosity, amazing suppleness of tone, and more than a hint of interpretive eccentricity.

Eight guest conductors will lead the Pacific Symphony this season. TOP row, from left: Christian Kluxen (Photo by Marthe Mølstre, Arctic Philharmonic), Ludovic Morlot (Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), Alexander Shelley and Matthew Halls. BOTTOM row, from left: Andrew Litton (Photo by Steve J. Sherman), Carlos Miguel Prieto (Photo by Benjamin Ealovega), Shiyeon Sung (Photo by Astrid Ackerm) and Tianyi Lu. (Photo by Macro Borggreve). Photos courtesy of Pacific Symphony
The parade of 'guest' conductors at Pacific Symphony

The competition to succeed St.Clair has begun, and the first three candidates all showed exciting promise. Our critic Timothy Mangan weighed in: Alexander Shelley conducted Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony “without score, and fully engaged with the musicians. The interpretation was a pretty standard one but so full of rich detail that it sounded fresh and new.” Conducting Debussy’s “La Mer,” Ludovic Morlot “was sharp and bracing. Not for Morlot a misty Impressionistic sea with gentle breezes. Tempos were fast and textures clear. You heard the urgency in Debussy’s music, the sting in his colors.” Christian Kluxen’s interpretation of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 also impressed Mangan. “From the very opening bars, which Kluxen led with remarkable simplicity and warmth, the conductor showed that he had clear ideas about this symphony’s many paths and byways.” Five more guest conductors will appear this season.


Top five theater moments of 2023

While the effects of the pandemic continue to linger, Orange County’s theater community has, for the most part, moved beyond its shadow and begun to return to crafting productions that resemble those leading up to the nationwide shutdown that began in March 2020 and inflicted untold damage for so long.

Here, in no particular order, are five highlights of Orange County theater from the year past. – Eric Marchese

From left, Nathan Broxton, Tiffany Yvonne Cox and Ashembaga (Ashe) Jaafaru in South Coast Repertory's 2023 production of "A Raisin in the Sun." This production marked the first time that SCR produced this classic play. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory/Robert Huskey
Lots of Ambitious New Programming at South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory opened the year with its ambitious pairing of “The Little Foxes” and “Appropriate,” two like-minded epics from different eras, on alternating nights on the Segerstrom Stage, then closed out the spring with “Coleman ’72” and “avaaz,” two incredibly poignant, deeply affecting personal theatrical essays. The vaunted regional theater company then launched its much-heralded 60th season this fall in style, with laudable stagings of the darkly original “Quixote Nuevo” and the iconic American classic “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Director Brian Newell’s original cast members reprised their roles in Maverick Theater’s third production of Newell’s Battle of Gettysburg drama “The Killer Angels.” Photo courtesy of Maverick Theater / Brian Newell
Maverick Theater Remounts the Civil War

For the third time, Maverick Theater resurrected its original “The Killer Angels,” bringing the Battle of Gettysburg to life in Orange County in a stunningly vivid drama of near-Shakespearean scope. This year’s production, which essentially used the entire original cast, closed on July 3, 2023 – the 160th anniversary of the pivotal Civil War battle’s final day.

Newport Theatre Arts Center led off its first-ever six-production season with an incredibly satisfying production of “The Addams Family” that equalled or surpassed the quality typical prior to the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Newport Theatre Arts Center / Sarah Whitwell
An Impressive 'Addams Family' Graces the Newport Theatre Arts Center Stage

With its incredibly detailed, quirkily offbeat, comedically and musically impressive staging of “The Addams Family,” and following two inconsistent seasons mixing promising productions with underwhelming ones, Newport Theatre Arts Center launched its first-ever six-production season and (finally) came roaring back from the pandemic, serving as a beacon for small theater companies everywhere.

New Swan’s “As You Like It” was one of three productions in 2023 – the first time the Irvine company had produced more than two shows in a season. Photo courtesy New Swan Shakespeare / Jesús López Vargas
The New Swan Expands Summer Season to Three Shows

For the first time in its 11-year history, the summertime New Swan Shakespeare Festival fielded three shows in its modular outdoor theater space in Irvine, complementing first-rate stagings of “Julius Caesar” and “As You Like It” with the popular/spoofy improv/erstwhile Renaissance Fair cult show “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised) (redone).”

The production of “The Angel Next Door” transferred in its entirety to Laguna Playhouse in October after having its world premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre (in San Diego County) in September. David Ellenstein, artistic director of both companies, directed both stagings. Photo courtesy Laguna Playhouse / Jason Niedle

The David Ellenstein Era at Laguna Playhouse Begins

The David Ellenstein era at historic Laguna Playhouse officially began on May 1, the new artistic director making his mark with appealing productions of “Murder on the Links” and “The Angel Next Door” transferred from his other venue (San Diego County’s North Coast Repertory Theatre), the funny yet thought-provoking “Rita Rudner in Staged,” dark and disturbing “The Realistic Joneses,” a pitch-perfect version of the classic drama “The Rainmaker” and a singular staging of “Once,” the quirky rom-com that taps its cast’s musical talents.


FIVE Memorable Dance Events of 2023

In the prolific landscape of Orange County’s dance scene in 2023, audiences were treated to an exciting array of performances that illuminated the intersection of tradition and innovation. This year, our local theaters played host to a collection of premieres – both North American and West Coast – each unveiling the choreographic genius of today’s contemporary dance artists.

We witnessed a new full-length ballet, tours from some of the top dance artists in our country, homegrown talent that got the community involved, literally, in the show, and an emotional display of strength and perseverance that raised funds for lifesaving humanitarian aid in Ukraine. As the curtain falls on 2023, it’s evident that it was a year that celebrated the richness of dance and our fortune of living in a place that attracts the best of the best. – Kaitlin Wright

Dancers Andrea Yorita and Richard Villaverde of BalletX. Photo courtesy of BalletX / Iziliaev
BalletX brings 3 West Coast premieres to Irvine

The Philadelphia-based BalletX is known for commissioning new and innovative works from around the world. The company’s appearance at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in January brought three West Coast premieres including a work by Tiler Peck called “Umoja.” 

Cassandra Trenary and Daniel Camargo in American Ballet Theatre's “Like Water for Chocolate.” Credit: Photo courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Segerstrom Center presents the north American premiere of American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’

Orange County audiences were the first in the country to experience Tony Award winner Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet based on the famous modern Mexican novel and award-winning film “Like Water for Chocolate.” The production recounts a family saga where the central character’s emotions spill out through her cooking and influence everyone around her in dramatic ways. 

Backhausdance dancers Kaitlin Regan and Adrien Padilla performing a site specific work at Sherman Library & Gardens. Photo courtesy of Backhausdance/Adrien Padilla

Backhausdance gets site-specific with ‘GardenFlow'

In April, Orange County’s resident contemporary dance company created a site-specific dance work inspired by a month-long residency at Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar. Guests were invited to watch and engage with the dancers as they rehearsed during the week and at the show as well as participate in community classes.

United Ukrainian Ballet Company members Liza Gogidze and Oleksii Kniazkov in "Giselle," choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. Photo courtesy of Altin Kaftira/The United Ukrainian Ballet

Alexei Ratmansky and The United Ukrainian Ballet bring a heartfelt ‘Giselle’

The United Ukrainian Ballet made its West Coast debut at Segerstrom Center for the Arts with Alexei Ratmansky’s “Giselle.” The ballet company, composed of 60 professional artists, performed in Orange County at a time when the ballet company found itself ostracized from its home and national working theaters in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa. Proceeds from ticket sales benefited organizations providing life-saving humanitarian aid in Ukraine.

Tiler Peck directed "Turn It Out with Tiler Peck and Friends" at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of Tiler Peck

The Star-studded cast of ‘Turn It Out with Tiler Peck and Friends’

Award-winning New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck added the role of director to her multi-hyphenate career with a show that integrated different dance disciplines (ballet, tap, jazz, etc.), creating an innovative program that was entertaining and accessible. The program included works by some of today’s most exciting choreographers such as Alonzo King, Michelle Dorrance and William Forsythe.


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