Pacific Symphony Perseveres, Thrives During Pandemic

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Carl St.Clair conducts members of the Pacific Symphony inside Segerstrom Concert Hall for a series of live recordings in February 2021.

It’s been an impressive 12 months for the Pacific Symphony.

The pandemic has been hard on arts organizations that depend on audiences – and donors – to succeed and thrive.

When everything shut down in March 2020, arts income all but stopped. For more than a year, Segerstrom Center and other venues were dark. The Pacific Symphony got by with online programming of recorded concerts and “live on Zoom” events with musicians.

Last summer, the symphony held its annual gala, with the theme of “Fandango! An Evening in Early California,” outdoors in a park in Mission Viejo, featuring the Pacific Symphony performing its first concert in more than a year.

Despite the pandemic restrictions, people were eager to get out and support the arts.

Della Lisi and NB Indy editor Christopher Trela at the Fandango gala in June 2021

Patrons were encouraged to dress in western/early California garb. They arrived to a themed setting as they entered a colorful village square flanked by market booths, haciendas and a ranch corral where experts showed off their roping skills. Pre-dinner entertainment featured the Mexican folk dance company Ballet Folklórico de Los Angeles accompanied by Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuellar.

Gala-goers sampled a variety of rancho-inspired hors d’oeuvres catered by 24 Carrots.

The most noteworthy news of the evening came from gala co-chairs Joann Leatherby and Leona Aronoff-Sadacca.

Dancers at the Fandango gala in June 2021

“This evening is incredibly special as it is not only the first Pacific Symphony live performance in 15 months, but also the first time the Symphony has performed at a Gala,” said Aronoff-Sadacca. “Tonight we have the distinct pleasure to honor Principal Pops Conductor Richard Kaufman’s 30th anniversary with our Pacific Symphony Pops.”

The sold-out event, attended by 356 guests, raised a record $2,009,325 (net) to benefit Pacific Symphony’s education and community engagement programs and artistic programming.

Just as Pacific Symphony’s “A Night in New Orleans” gala on March 7, 2020 was the last live Orange County Gala in the performing arts before the pandemic began, “Fandango!” was the first live Gala of the performing arts post-pandemic.

The Pacific Symphony continued to lead the way with live programming in 2021 including a spectacular live summer season, and into 2022 with pops and classics concerts.

One of the more memorable events that the Pacific Symphony offered donors earlier this year was the opportunity to have lunch with legendary actor William Shatner, of “Star Trek” and “T.J. Hooker” fame. He also holds the distinction of being the oldest person to go into space. At age 90, Shatner was Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ guest on the New Shepard, the suborbital space tourism rocket developed by Bezos’ company Blue Origin.

NB Indy editor Christopher Trela with William Shatner

Around 40 people attended the luncheon held at The Pacific Club in Newport Beach and coordinated by Pacific Symphony patron Scott Seigel, who convinced Shatner to attend the fundraising event. It was hard to pass up a chance to hear Shatner talk about his early days as an actor, his concepts of music and art, and of course his space flight which he said left him emotional upon seeing the earth and the black expanse of the universe.

Guests were thrilled with Shatner’s stories, and everyone took home Star Trek souvenirs, including books autographed by Shatner, recordings, and even a Star Trek lunch pail.

A year after last year’s gala, the symphony returned to Mission Viejo for its 2022 gala, “A Night in Old Hollywood,” featuring surprise guest Broadway star Lisa Vroman.

Like last year, this gala was sold out. It featured a red-carpet entrance leading to an elegant reception on a black-and-white silent movie set, gourmet dinner of cuisine inspired by the iconic Brown Derby restaurant associated with the Golden Age of Hollywood, and a lively auction of luxury items and experiences.

Pacific Symphony 2022 Gala – “A Night in Old Hollywood” was held at the Potocki Center for the Arts in Mission Viejo, California on June 18, 2022. photo by Doug Gifford

Broadway star Lisa Vroman made a surprise appearance performing such Judy Garland favorites as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “The Trolley Song” as well as classics from the American Songbook

The event finished with late-night dancing under the stars to the sounds of the JT and Friends with bandleader and tech executive John Tu of Kingston Technology on the drums. John and his wife Mary announced the pledge of a $1 million challenge grant to encourage Orange County donors to match their gift dollar-for-dollar.

Pacific Symphony gala – photo by Annie White

The event was attended by 380 guests (many, as usual, from Newport Beach), and raised $2,313,200 – more than last year – with proceeds benefiting Pacific Symphony’s education and community engagement programs and artistic programming.

The symphony has garnered a reputation for taking their themed events to the extreme. One gala actually featured a real Ferris wheel and carnival games.

Pacific Symphony gala 2022 / photo by Doug Gifford

For this gala, attendees found themselves transported back in time to the glitz and glamour of Old Hollywood. Movie impersonators Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Gene Kelly, living “Oscar” statues and feathery show girls posed for photo ops with the guests. Additional pre-dinner entertainment included a strolling saxophonist and tuxedo-clad tap-dancing Top Hat Dancers. Artists Creating Entertainment (A.C.E.), an experiential entertainment booking agency based in LA, provided all the performers.

Pacific Symphony 2022 Gala – “A Night Charlie Chaplin, Maestro Carl St.Clair and his wife Susan at the Old Hollywood” gala / photo by Doug Gifford

Guests toasted the evening with classic specialty cocktails evocative of Old Hollywood. Passed hors d’oeuvres included miniature Beef Wellingtons with horseradish sauce, smoked trout paté on brioche toast with horseradish, pickled rhubarb and candied pecans, Gougère choux pastry puffs of Gruyère with micro-grated parmesan cheese and “Devils on Horseback” dates smothered in bacon with stilton cheese.

Decadent appetizer stations throughout the reception area featured caviar pie (with blini, toast points and artisanal potato chips), fresh oysters (with Zinfandel mignonette, cocktail sauce and fresh lemon) and Oysters Rockefeller (with butter, herbs and breadcrumbs), all created by boutique caterer, Untitled Catering out of Pasadena, who also created the gourmet dinner.

John Forsyte, Pat McAuley, Joann Leatherby, Judy Whitmore, Carl St.Clair at the Pacific Symphony 2022 Gala – “A Night in Old Hollywood.” Photo by Doug Gifford

Pacific Symphony President and CEO John Forsyte greeted the gala-goers and commented: “How incredible is it that we are all safely here today? I’m so grateful that you are all here tonight to continue our journey. And thank you to our fearless co-chairs, Joann Leatherby, Pat McAuley and Judy Whitmore, who were given the near impossible task of planning an outdoor gala for our safety while every organization was navigating a return to an indoor venue. On behalf of the musicians, Carl, board and staff, thank you so much.”

Forsyte also paid tribute to the Pacific Symphony’s “Philanthropists of the Year,” Valerie and Hans Imhof, who have been longtime supporters of the symphony.

“Beyond their philanthropy they have provided vision, leadership, resources and dedication to many of our programs,” said Forsyte.

Board member Scott Seigel with “Charlie Chaplin” at the Pacific Symphony 2022 Gala – “A Night in Old Hollywood.” Photo by Doug Gifford

The Pacific Symphony is currently in the middle of its summer season at FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine, which began with a sensational July 4 concert featuring the music of Queen.

Coming up are two more summer concerts: John Williams’ thrilling soundtrack of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in Concert performed live to film (Aug. 20), and everyone’s favorite summer finale: Tchaikovsky Spectacular on Sept. 4 featuring a medalist from the Sixteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, who will make an important debut with Pacific Symphony.

Single tickets start at $39. All concerts take place at 8 p.m. Concessions are diverse and bountiful including food trucks selling Mediterranean, Korean and Mexican food. A wide variety of wine, beer and cocktails are available for purchase. Gates open at 6 p.m. for picnicking.

For more information on the summer season or to purchase tickets, call Pacific Symphony Patron Services at (714) 755-5799 or visit online at

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