In an annual tradition at SF Classical Voice, we once again asked you, the readers, to sound off about this past season’s best performers and performances. As always, the Audience Choice Awards were completely reader-driven — you nominated the finalists, and you voted for the winners. This year’s response in Los Angeles was very heartening. With thousands of votes submitted, you proved there is an engaged and passionate audience that is just as interested in smaller groups and emerging talent as in big stars.
Plenty of categories came down to just a few votes, and the winners and nominees definitely reflect the diversity of programming and voices available in the Southland. We hope that the results of this year’s poll encourages even more risk-taking in upcoming seasons, as L.A. continues to show why a vibrant arts scene is indispensable to a great city.
Best Opera Singer: Anna Schubert
Every finalist got some love in this category full of local talent, so it only makes sense that the singer who came out on top would have ties to multiple L.A. organizations. Soprano Anna Schubert clinched first place for a season that included roles with Long Beach Opera and performances with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Runners-up were soprano Molly Netter, one of the leading players in the premiere of Dylan Mattingly’s Stranger Love at Disney Hall, and baritone Jake Stamatis, a regular with Pacific Opera Project.
Best Chamber Ensemble: Delirium Musicum
Delirium Musicum is one of this year’s big winners. Not only is the enterprising young group that’s led by Artistic Director Etienne Gara your favorite chamber ensemble of 2022–2023, these players also take home Best New Music Ensemble, as well as Best Orchestral Performance for their May program at The Soraya pairing two contemporary responses to Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.
Best Choral Ensemble: Los Angeles Master Chorale
The Los Angeles Master Chorale made a return to form this season, from another collaboration with director Peter Sellars (which scores below under Best Choral Performance) to more new music from composer-in-residence Reena Esmail. The group again ranks as your top choral ensemble of the year, a prize that the Master Chorale first picked up in our 2019–2020 Audience Choice Awards.
Best Dance Soloist: Oguri
Finally! In Audience Choice Awards past, Oguri has routinely come in a close second in this category, but the performer and choreographer can claim victory this year. The artistic director of Body Weather Laboratory and a staple of the L.A. dance scene since 1991, he narrowly beat out Bobbi Jene Smith and Tetyana Martyanova to clinch a well-deserved first place.
Best Early Music/Baroque Ensemble: Tesserae Baroque
Fewer than 100 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 violinist and conductor Rachel Podger, and the group is looking ahead to more collaborations in 2023 and 2024 — details to be announced soon.
Best New Music Ensemble: Delirium Musicum
Your favorite chamber ensemble and your favorite new music ensemble. 2023 especially has been a time for Delirium Musicum’s penchant for the contemporary to shine through, with the group integral to the world premiere of Treelogy, a trio of new works by composers Billy Childs, Gabriella Smith, and Steven Mackey on ecological themes, which toured California in February and March.
Best Orchestra: Los Angeles Philharmonic
No surprise here. The LA Phil has set a programming standard for American orchestras in the 21st century, and each season is more ambitious than the last. The organization may be on the cusp of a major transition (just see the next category), but one thing is certain. Audiences not just in Los Angeles but nationwide will continue to look to the Phil as a pioneering example.
Best Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel
Gustavo Dudamel has become synonymous with the orchestra he’s led since 2009 — which now puts the LA Phil in a tricky spot. This February, the music and artistic director announced that he would be leaving for the New York Philharmonic at the end of the 2025–2026 season. There’s still plenty of local love for the conductor, however, as evidenced by his win in this category for yet another year in a row.
Best Instrumental Soloist: Talon Smith
A runaway winner here, as the young pianist’s supporters came out in droves to vote for his February recital in Santa Monica, where he performed his 24 Preludes, Op. 1, just published in January. That program also takes gold in the Best New Music Performance and Best Instrumental Recital categories, and the composition itself scores as Best New Discovery.
Best Jazz Soloist: Meloney Collins
Many voters will probably have seen this vocalist and SoCal native at Disneyland, where she performs as Queenie with both the Jambalaya Jazz Band and The Royal Street Bachelors in New Orleans Square. Aside from the Disney songbook, she sings the Great American Songbook with L.A.’s Side Street Strutters band and in her own cabaret show, “Standard Mel,” where she’s sometimes accompanied by an 18-piece big band in classic arrangements by Duane Benjamin. It didn’t hurt that she was featured in this year’s Best Jazz Performance as well. Denean Dyson and Angie Wells were runners-up.
Best Jazz Instrumentalist: Billy Childs
This L.A. native and multiple Grammy winner needs no introduction to SFCV readers who have heard about his LA Phil commissions, most recently his Violin Concerto No. 2 (for Rachel Barton Pine), and his contribution to Treelogy at The Soraya. But with a new album out earlier this year (The Winds of Change), he’s also again touring with his jazz quartet and will be back in L.A. for the 28th Annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival on Sept. 23 and then the Monterey Jazz Festival the next day. Voters may have had the album tour launch at Hollywood’s Catalina Jazz Club last April in mind when they handed him the victory in this category over saxophonist Kirsten Edkins.
Best Opera Performance: Pacific Opera Project, The Pirates of Penzance
In what has to be viewed as an upset victory over the much larger Los Angeles Opera, Pacific Opera Project’s Gilbert and Sullivan show, performed outdoors at Glendale’s Forest Lawn Museum in May, romped to a win in this category. The show was streamed on June 18 as well, making the daffy production even more friends. While most POP offerings are updated, this one was just the show without any of the clever transpositions the company is known for. It was, however, like most POP shows, sold out (and well sung by a cast of up-and-comers). LA Opera’s Omar was runner-up.
Best Chamber Performance: Salastina, Das Lied von der Erde
There was little competition here, as Salastina’s chamber version of Gustav Mahler’s symphonic-sized song cycle, performed in June, easily pinned the runner-up to the mat. There must have been something in the air because in the same month, Sony released a recorded version of the transcription. While SFCV wasn’t able to make it to Salastina’s concert, our readers were evidently enthralled. Second place went to the New Hollywood String Quartet’s Summer of Paris Chamber Music Festival.
Best Choral Performance: Los Angeles Master Chorale, Music to Accompany a Departure
Teaming up again with director Peter Sellars proved to be a canny move for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, as well as another artistically successful collaboration. Their staging of Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien (dubbed Music to Accompany a Departure for this presentation) was a critical and box-office smash and will tour to the Bay Area in the coming season. Audiences and our readers were stunned and sent the production to the head of the class, over runner-up HEX Vocal Ensemble’s Sacred Mountain.
Best Dance Performance: Dutch National Ballet, Frida (presented by The Music Center)
In its July performances at The Music Center, Frida, with choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and music by Peter Salem, impressed audiences with its portrait of Mexican painter and feminist icon Frida Kahlo. The beautifully designed production convinced our readers to put it in the winner’s circle, over runner-up Blue 13 Dance Company at The Wallis.
Best New Music Performance: Talon Smith, 24 Preludes
As in the favorite instrumentalist category, the young pianist’s supporters flocked to vote for his victory here. Playing his own recently completed composition at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, the 21-year-old obviously won admirers. We at SFCV are just happy that so many readers took an interest in new music, with hundreds of votes going to the runner-up, Treelogy at The Soraya.
Best Orchestral Performance: Delirium Musicum, “Seasons” (presented by The Soraya)
Celebrating the release of its album Seasons, chamber orchestra Delirium Musicum played two performances at The Soraya this past May. The new recording features Max Richter’s The Four Seasons Recomposed and Philip Glass’s The American Four Seasons. Our readers appreciated the group’s “fiery spirit” as much as SFCV’s Richard S. Ginell did. Arturo Márquez’s sparkling violin concerto Fandango, with soloist Anne Akiko Meyers backed by the LA Phil, came in as runner-up.
Best Early Music/Baroque Performance: Salastina, “Salastina Goes for Baroque”
In a close vote, Salastina squeezed out a victory with its “Salastina Goes for Baroque” concert set. Co-Artistic Directors Kevin Kumar and Maia Jasper White manage to infuse everything this group does with freshness and well-thought-out connections to the audience, which may explain why our readers are so high on them. The November concerts at Santa Monica’s BroadStage and the Pasadena Conservatory of Music came with free wine donated by Lumen Wines and KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen, who served as host/commentator. Runner-up was Pacific Opera Project’s production of Antonio Vivaldi’s Ercole su’l Termodonte.
Best Instrumental Recital: Talon Smith, 24 Preludes
Another win for Talon Smith, who takes the top slot here for his premiere performance of his own 24 Preludes. Smith’s virtuosic and deeply emotive playing, the stuff of an ambitious rising star, was a big hit with our readers this year.
Best Vocal Recital: Ojai Music Festival, “An Evening With Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi”
Rhiannon Giddens is the rare musician who effortlessly transcends categorization. At the 2023 Ojai Music Festival, where she served as music director, she teamed up with fellow multi-instrumentalist and regular collaborator Francesco Turrisi for this sold-out concert. It was an intimate presentation of music ranging from the Baroque to Appalachian ballads and traditional Black American songs, proving that great music goes beyond genre and time period.
Best Jazz Performance: Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts, Pamela Madsen’s Laguna Beach Suite: From the Canyons to the Sea
Laguna Beach provided the inspiration for this composition by Pamela Madsen, performed by the Eric Dries Trio and vocalist Meloney Collins at the Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts. A UC San Diego grad and Cal State Fullerton professor, Madsen celebrates the sublime landscapes of the Southern California coast in what was a treat for local audiences.
Best Large Venue: Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl were almost tied for your favorite large venue, with the former winning by just half a percentage point. The home of the LA Phil and LA Master Chorale, with its dazzling modern architecture, is a dependable favorite for orchestral performances, but the Phil’s outdoor summer home is clearly no less important to the city’s musical life.
Best Small Venue: Zipper Hall
Zipper Hall at the Colburn School continued its now-three-year winning streak in this category, easily outdoing the competition. A hub of chamber music activity, Zipper gives audiences the chance to hear world-class performances by students and professionals alike, including Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
Best Outdoor or Club Venue: The Ebell of Los Angeles
The Ebell of Los Angeles is a historic women-led institution with a sumptuous theater space that hosts diverse concerts and cultural events. The vibrant jazz club and restaurant Vibrato Grill took second place, with The Drake in Laguna Beach just behind in third.
Best Festival: Ojai Music Festival
It’s no surprise that the Ojai Music Festival, led this year by the visionary Rhiannon Giddens, takes top honors here. This festival saw an ambitious kaleidoscope of offerings. In addition to Giddens’s acoustic concert (which won Best Vocal Recital above), we heard the premiere of a suite based on Omar, the opera by Giddens and Michael Abels, as well as a rich assemblage of music drawn from American, Asian, and Middle Eastern traditions.
Best New Discovery: Talon Smith, 24 Preludes
Talon Smith may just be beginning his career, but he’s already made a mark on SFCV readers, winning his fourth award here. Steeped in the great tradition of Chopin, Brahms, and Beethoven, the young talent is a breath of fresh air for music lovers, and we look forward to seeing what his career will bring. Delirium Musicum took second place in this category.
Best Streaming Performance or Series: Salastina, Happy Hours
On Tuesdays, Salastina provides a chance for music lovers to come together and unwind in the presence of a great concert, which is also livestreamed. Watching from home, you may not be able to indulge in the mimosas or pastries, but there’s nothing like curling up in bed with a great performance. The streamed concerts from this year’s Ojai Music Festival took a close second place in this category.