It’s an annual tradition at SF Classical Voice: We asked for your favorite performers and performances of the past season, and you let us know. As always, “Audience Choice Award” reflects the nature of the voting. All nominees and final winners are selected by you — avid listeners and SFCV readers. And while we’re happy to see the robust audience response, we’re just as impressed by your knowledge of and passion for the artists you love.
Plenty of categories came down to just a few votes, and respondents rewarded a variety of musicians and organizations for their work. This was a season that was shadowed, if not halted, by the specter of the pandemic. So bravo to all the music lovers who made the decision to return to the concert hall throughout the year: May you be the leading edge of a wave. And a second round of cheers to all the musicians whose dedication and unflagging spirits made the season possible.
And with that, here are the winners of the 2021–2022 Audience Choice Awards for Los Angeles:
Best Opera Singer: Cristina Jones
In a category full of local talent, one singer stood out. Soprano Cristina Jones was front of mind after her standout performance in the title role of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta with Pacific Opera Project this season. The choice casting, which had Jones playing the story’s blind princess (the singer herself is blind), also scores in the “Best New Discovery” category, and the entire production wins “Best Opera Performance.” Runner-up was vocalist Laurel Irene, the star of Long Beach Opera’s Voices From the Killing Jar last summer and a fixture on L.A.’s new music scene.
Best Chamber Music Ensemble: Salastina
Salastina was the favorite among the trio of L.A. chamber groups nominated here, all with something of a new music bent. But for the seven core members of Salastina, contemporary compositions are just a part of the programming equation, in addition to classic works, film and television music, and even the occasional updated take on opera. It all fits in with the group’s goal of “broaden[ing] the definition of what classical music was, is, and can be.” For proof, look no further than Salastina’s popular series of Happy Hours, which sees the group taking home another award, “Best Streaming Performance or Series.”
Best Choral Ensemble: Los Angeles Master Chorale
Los Angeles Master Chorale was back in action this season, from a joyous reopening program in September 2021 to this June’s finale featuring the Bach Mass in B Minor. The group again ranks as your top choral ensemble of the year, a prize that LAMC first picked up in our 2019–2020 Audience Choice Awards.
Best Dance Soloist: Micaela Taylor
Micaela Taylor beat out Oguri in this head-to-head race. Both dancers make their mark as performers and choreographers, and they each have their respective companies (The TL Collective and Body Weather Laboratory), but Taylor takes top honors here.
Best Early Music/Baroque Ensemble: Tesserae Baroque
Only a dozen votes separated Tesserae Baroque from runner-up Jouyssance, but both ensembles prove that historically informed performance is alive and well in Los Angeles. A highlight of Tesserae’s past season was hosting countertenor Reginald Mobley, and the group is looking ahead to more collaborations in 2022 and 2023, including violinist Rachel Podger, the Colburn Baroque Ensemble, and plenty more — details to be announced Sept. 1.
Best New Music Ensemble: Cal State Fullerton New Music Ensemble
The students in the Cal State Fullerton New Music Ensemble may change from year to year, but the direction under composer and professor Pamela Madsen never wavers. This college group really gets the chance to shine during CSUF’s annual New Music Festival, which this spring concluded with a premiere of Madsen’s own piece, Oratorio for the Earth, a program that also wins on its own for “Best Orchestra Performance.”
Best Orchestra: Los Angeles Philharmonic
No surprise here. The LA Phil has set a standard for American orchestras in the 21st century, and each season is more ambitious than the last. In addition to being your favorite orchestra, the ensemble wins “Best Festival” for its Noon to Midnight marathon, and its home, Walt Disney Concert Hall, wins “Best Large Venue.” Plus, when it comes to the next category …
Best Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel
It almost wouldn’t be right if Gustavo Dudamel didn’t win, too. The LA Phil’s music and artistic director is one of the uniting forces in classical music, in Los Angeles and worldwide. He may be doing double duty now as music director of the Paris Opera, but he’ll be sticking around in Southern California a while longer, with an LA Phil contract that goes through 2025–2026.
Best Instrumental Soloist: Vicki Ray, piano
Vicki Ray is one of the guiding forces behind Piano Spheres, L.A.’s adventurous keyboard recital series, so it’s a well-earned win to be recognized solo. Her program this past season, “Frozen Improvisations,” spun a musical exploration out of a single quote from Igor Stravinsky, the kind of all-embracing artistic gesture that makes this pianist stand out. LA Phil timpanist Joseph Pereira came in a close second here.
Best Jazz Vocalist: Esperanza Spalding
It might be impossible to separate Esperanza Spalding’s singing from her bass playing, but you nonetheless singled out her jazz vocals as the best of the season. And L.A. audiences have certainly had plenty of opportunities to take in this musician’s artistry, from appearances at the Hollywood Bowl (Spalding, along with Herbie Hancock, wins “Best Jazz Performance” for a program there) to the local premiere of a collaborative piece with Wayne Shorter, Iphigenia, at Santa Monica’s BroadStage earlier this year.
Best Jazz Instrumentalist: Herbie Hancock
SFCV readers might have Herbie Hancock’s association with the LA Phil in mind, but as jazz instrumentalists go, he needs no introduction. He was the favorite in this category, also winning “Best Jazz Performance” for that September 2021 set at the Hollywood Bowl featuring Esperanza Spalding.
Best Opera Performance: Pacific Opera Project, Iolanta
Pacific Opera Project attracted attention with the cast for this production, but the company went all out in every aspect when it came to staging Tchaikovsky’s work this past spring. SFCV spoke with Artistic Director Josh Shaw ahead of the March 20 opening. “This is our first Russian opera. It’s the largest orchestra we’ve ever had. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime concept,” he said. POP pulled ahead of Long Beach Opera’s reprise of The Central Park Five to take top honors in this category.
Best Chamber Music Performance: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, 2021–2022 chamber performances at The Huntington
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra took the stage of The Huntington’s Rothenberg Hall twice last season, and those chamber performances, curated by concertmaster Margaret Batjer and featuring members of the ensemble, made an impression. From an early music evening (works by Antonio Vivaldi, Giovanni Pergolesi, and more) to the world premiere of a piece by Samuel Adams, LACO excelled in the intimate setting.
Best Choral Performance: Pacific Chorale, “Songs of the Soul”
Pacific Chorale was on comfortably contemporary ground for this March 2022 program, which combined a modernist masterpiece, Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Chorus, with a selection of shorter works by living composers. The Orange County ensemble under Artistic Director Robert Istad has a penchant for new music, and you took note, voting the choir to the top spot for “Best New Music Performance” as well.
Best Dance Performance: DIAVOLO at The Wallis
DIAVOLO’s Veterans Project premiered S.O.S. Signs of Strength at The Wallis in March 2022, and it takes the lead for your favorite dance performance of the year. Military veterans and civilian dancers performed the piece, which expresses themes of resilience as well as what it means to find belonging. Luminario Ballet comes in second with its “Hard as a Rock” Gala at the Avalon Hollywood; BODYTRAFFIC at The Wallis follows close behind in third.
Best New Music Performance: Pacific Chorale, Tarik O’Regan’s The Stillness Chained
Long relationships with composers pay off. Tarik O’Regan, Pacific Chorale’s former composer-in-residence, wrote The Stillness Chained for the ensemble back in 2020, and the chorus finally gave the premiere as part of its first program post-pandemic in October 2021.
Best Orchestra Performance: Cal State Fullerton Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Choir and HEX vocal ensemble, Pamela Madsen’s Oratorio for the Earth
Pamela Madsen’s Oratorio for the Earth, a concert-length multimovement work for orchestra, choir, and soloists, has already received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and New Music USA. Now, the piece — premiered at Meng Concert Hall in May 2022 by the Cal State Fullerton Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Choir and HEX vocal ensemble — has the votes of SFCV’s readers, too. Second place goes to the LA Phil’s program of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 and Andrew Norman’s Play: Level 1, part of the orchestra’s Gen X Festival in April. And in third is Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony.
Best Early Music/Baroque Performance: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Bach’s Goldberg Variations for String Orchestra
I’m sure, when Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra decided to feature a string orchestra arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the ensemble didn’t think it would take home an award for “Best Early Music Performance.” But that’s what happened, as SFCV readers gave LACO the nod over Jouyssance’s celebration of composer Josquin des Prez. Just goes to show that you don’t need a Baroque brain to play Bach.
Best Instrumental Recital: Martin Chalifour, “A Chalifour Celebration” at the LA Phil
The concertmaster of the LA Phil, Martin Chalifour, celebrated his 25th year with the orchestra in style, making great music with his colleagues and guests Liv Redpath (soprano) and Inon Barnatan (piano). You remembered that February recital fondly, choosing it over “This Is America,” the solo recital by Brooklyn Rider co-founder Johnny Gandelsman.
Best Vocal Recital: Davóne Tines, 2022 performances at the Ojai Music Festival
Davóne Tines is a singer who challenges conventions, and SFCV readers are up for it. You chose Tines’s nontraditional Recital No. 1: Mass as the best of the past season. The critics agreed: Josef Woodard, writing in SFCV, deemed it “commanding,” and Mark Swed, of the Los Angeles Times, called it “stunning” and wrote: “The next day in Ojai, it seemed to be all anybody could talk about; Tines sent shock waves through a primarily white audience that has throughout the festival’s history prided itself on artistic and spiritual open-mindedness.”
Best Jazz Performance: Herbie Hancock (with Esperanza Spalding) at the Hollywood Bowl
Herbie Hancock made a big return with this set at the Bowl in September 2021, the tail end of a U.S. tour that saw him bouncing back from pandemic cancellations (including several anticipated engagements with the LA Phil). Our reviewer praised the pianist, writing, “He’s still at the top of his game,” and also singled out bassist Esperanza Spalding for leading “a stellar opening act.”
Best Large Venue: Walt Disney Concert Hall
Before the pandemic, SFCV readers voted Walt Disney Concert Hall their favorite large venue. This year is a repeat performance, with the home of the LA Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale taking the top spot again. For second place, The Ford narrowly edges out Meng Concert Hall at Cal State Fullerton.
Best Small Venue: Zipper Hall
Another venue that returns to the top of the list is Zipper Hall at the Colburn School. SFCV readers voted the space their favorite small venue in 2019–2020. Now that the classical calendar is in full swing again, it’s no wonder that the venue continues to appeal to audiences. Monk Space, a favorite place for new music, comes in second, followed closely by Barrett Hall at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music in third.
Best Outdoor or Club Venue: Descanso Gardens
The Descanso Gardens is a beautiful place for performances, SFCV readers decided, selecting it by a hair over the Chinese Garden at The Huntington. The botanical garden has this past year hosted performances by Pacific Opera Project, among other groups of interest to classical listeners.
Best Festival: LA Phil, Noon to Midnight
The LA Phil domination of a category is perhaps never more earned than the extravagant and exhausting Noon to Midnight, voted “Best Festival” despite a highly respectable showing of support for the Ojai Music Festival. Noon to Midnight not only showcases the orchestra’s flexibility — it also demonstrates the power of using an orchestra venue as a gathering place. A large sample of the L.A. new music community takes part in this event, with performances happening in and around Disney Hall throughout the day.
Best New Discovery: Cristina Jones in Pacific Opera Project’s Iolanta
Cristina Jones couldn’t just win once. In addition to taking home “Best Opera Singer,” the soprano ranks as your “Best New Discovery” of the 2021–2022 season, thanks to her star-making turn as the title character in POP’s Iolanta.
Best Streaming Performance or Series: Salastina, Happy Hours
More than 100 Happy Hours (and counting?). The musicians of Salastina adopted the virtual format at the start of the pandemic but continued with the series throughout last season, complementing the in-person performances on their 2021–2022 schedule. Typically, each week saw a different guest — from violinist Hilary Hahn to composer Alan Menken — join in for conversation and maybe a little live music. In the process, Salastina found both new audiences and a devoted following, so it’s only natural the group would win here.