As the pandemic eases its grip on California, the performing arts are coming back to life with surprising vigor. The latest sign: Pacific Symphony is announcing an ambitious and robust 2021-22 season that assumes live concerts will be unrestricted in the fall. But it comes with a caveat.

“The season announcement represents the promise that we’re upholding to last year’s subscribers: If you hold onto your tickets, we’re going to reward you with a great season,” said Pacific Symphony music director Carl St.Clair. “We already knew we had a popular line-up. We got the chance to refine it, and we didn’t have to make too many concessions.” But St.Clair acknowledged that if the virus makes a rebound at any time during the season, adjustments will be made.

The season begins with a suitably big name: pianist Emanuel Ax will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 on Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and Oct. 2. The opening concert also features the world premiere of American composer Wayne Oquin’s “Tower Ascending,” which the composer described as “my own depiction of an ongoing aspect of urban city life: the construction of modern skyscrapers.”

Emanuel Ax Credit: Photo courtesy of Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Other works being given their first Pacific Symphony performances in 2021-22 include “All the World’s a Stage,” a new audience-participation piece by Frank Ticheli, the orchestra’s original composer-in-residence; American composer Michael Ippolito’s Nocturne for Orchestra, inspired by a painting by Joan Miro; and Innocente Carreño’s “Margariteña,” which evokes the culture of Margarita, an island off the coast of Venezuela where the composer was born.

In keeping with its practice of performing unusual works from the past, St.Clair and the orchestra will give the first Pacific Symphony performance of Lili Boulanger’s “D’un matin de printemps.” It was written during the last year of the young composer’s life before she died of tuberculosis at 24 in 1918.

Another season highlight will be the world premiere of a work by Scottish composer Sir James MacMillian which was commissioned by Pacific Symphony. “Fiat Lux” (“Let There Be Light”) employs a text by Dana Gioia, California poet laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

“It’s a big deal,” St.Clair said. “It’s a huge, huge undertaking for us and, and a great partnership that we haven’t enjoyed before. And it’s been great knowing him and having dinner with him and talking through this piece. He’s already finished. He was ready for it to be performed last spring when it was first scheduled.”

Each season Pacific Symphony chooses an opera for minimal staging. For 2021-22 it will be Verdi’s “Otello,” featuring Metropolitan Opera star tenor Carl Tanner. 

Carl Tanner Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

Opera “has really become part of the Pacific Symphony’s DNA,” St.Clair said. “And what’s been really rewarding is seeing the number of opera fans who had fallen in love with symphonic music and vice versa. And as you probably know, our opera initiatives have been some of our best-selling and most well-received events throughout the years.”

Although the orchestra will be returning to its regular home, Segerstrom Concert Hall, the pandemic has brought significant changes behind the scenes. “Teams from UC Irvine and from the industrial hygiene firm, TRC, have provided outstanding input on safety protocols and attested to outstanding quality of air handling in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall,” Pacific Symphony President John Forsyte said.

The COVID-19 virus has proven unpredictable, and Pacific Symphony’s season announcement contained the precautions that every performing arts group must include with a season announcement.

“Pacific Symphony’s live concert reopening this September will be modified as needed based on conditions improving and vaccination levels rising,” the press release stated in its final paragraph. “The Symphony remains committed to the safety of the public and will continue collaborating closely with the Segerstrom Center for the Arts to align with evolving regulations” set by various local, state and federal health organizations.

Along with the challenges he endured, St.Clair cited some positives from the events of the last year.

‘I think the one thing that the pandemic has really proven to everyone is that we can stay in touch with our audience through these media platforms. We can keep them well-informed and we can provide them with an intimate part of our musical soul. That’s something we learned that’s very important.”

Pacific Symphony’s 2021-22 Season

Classics Series

All concerts at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Programs, artists and dates subject to change.

Opening Weekend: Emanuel Ax Plays Mozart
Sept. 30, Oct. 1-2, 2021 • 8 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano

Oquin: “Tower Ascending” (Symphonic World Premiere)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5

Beethoven’s “Eroica”
Oct. 14-16, 2021 • 8 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor
Cellist to be announced

Ticheli: “All the World’s a Stage” (World Premiere)
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto
Nov. 11-13, 2021 • 8 p.m.
Teddy Abrams, conductor
Rachel Barton Pine, violin

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
Remaining program to be announced

Zhang Plays Rach 2
Dec. 2-4, 2021 • 8 p.m.
Markus Stenz, conductor
Haochen Zhang, piano

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2
Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Stravinsky: Suite from “The Firebird” (1945)

Haochen Zhang Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

Mozart & Mahler
Jan. 6-8, 2022 • 8 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor
Celena Shafer, soprano
Christina Naughton, piano
Michelle Naughton, piano

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 10 for Two Pianos
Mahler: Symphony No. 4

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto
Jan. 27-29, 2022 • 8 p.m.
Anja Bihlmaier, conductor
Bomsori Kim, violin

Boulanger: “D’un matin de printemps”
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Brahms: Symphony No.

Cathedrals of Sound
Feb. 17-19, 2022 • 8 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor
Robert Istad, conductor
Elissa Johnston, soprano
Baritone to be announced
Pacific Chorale, Robert Istad, artistic director

Tallis: “Spem in Alium”
Strauss: “Death and Transfiguration”
Macmillan: “Fiat Lux” (World Premiere)

Saint- Saëns’ Organ Symphony
March 10-12, 2022 • 8 p.m.
Edo de Waart, conductor
James Ehnes, violin

Ippolito: Nocturne for orchestra
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2
Saint- Saëns: Symphony No. 3, “Organ Symphony”

April 7, 9 and 12, 2022 • 8 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor
Robert Neu, stage director
Carl Tanner, tenor
Kelebogile Besong, soprano
Pacific Chorale, Robert Istad, artistic director

Verdi: “Otello”

Kelebogile Besong Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

Yang Plays Rachmaninoff
April 28-30, 2022 • 8 p.m.
José Luis Gómez, conductor
Joyce Yang, piano

Carreño: Margariteña
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Schuman: Symphony No. 4 (1851 version)

The Mozart Project
May 19-21, 2022 • 8 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor
David Ivers, Artistic Director, South Coast Repertory
James Sullivan, stage director
Pacific Chorale, Robert Istad, artistic director

Mozart: Overture to “Don Giovanni”
Mozart: Selections from the movie, “Amadeus”
Mozart: Requiem in D Minor

Beethoven’s Piano Concertos
June 9-12, 2022 • 8 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor
Alexander Romanovsky, piano
Dennis Kim, violin

Beethoven: Overture to “Coriolan”
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4<

Beethoven: Romance No. 1 in G Major
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2
Beethoven: Romance No. 2 in F Major
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3

Beethoven: Symphony No. 8
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”

2021-22 Special Concert Add-Ons

Handel’s Glorious “Messiah”
Dec. 5 • 3 p.m.
Robert Moody, conductor
Pacific Chorale, Robert Istad, Artistic Director

Lunar New Year
Feb. 5, 2022 • 8 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor
Festivities honoring the Lunar New Year, The Year of the Tiger.
Artists to be announced.

Nowruz: Iranian New Year
March 26, 2022 • 8 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor
Traditional celebration that marks the beginning of spring.
Artists to be announced.

2021-22 Sunday Matinees

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth
Oct. 3 • 3 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5

Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony
Oct. 17 • 3 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”

Mahler Symphony No. 4
Jan. 9, 2022 • 3 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor

Mahler: Symphony No. 4

Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto
June 12, 2022 • 3 p.m.
Carl St.Clair, conductor
Alexander Romanovsky, piano

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at

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