New Harbor Front Shell Could Bring Sea Change To San Diego Symphony

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the San Diego Symphony and music director Rafael Payare at the opening of The Rady Shell. (Photos by Richard S. Ginell)

SAN DIEGO — Cultural San Diego now has a new tourist attraction to compete with the beaches, the Trolley, the Zoo, the Padres, and everything else.

It’s a snazzy addition to the downtown waterfront from the San Diego Symphony to go along with its snazzy Venezuelan music director, Rafael Payare. And to use a much-overworked catch phrase that at last has the ring of truth, it could be a game-changer for a historically underachieving orchestra, now definitely on the rise.

The full name is The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park — or The Shell for short — an outdoor concert facility that finally opened its gates Aug. 6 after a COVID-enforced delay of a year and a month. The scale model of The Shell in the lobby of Copley Symphony Hall two years ago looked like a knockoff on a smaller scale of the Sydney Opera House in the way it juts into San Diego Bay.

In person, though, my first impression was quite different. Built on a breakwater in cooperation with the Port of San Diego, The Shell doesn’t look as isolated as the model indicated because there is a marina filled with private boats occupying the inlet separating the grounds from the mainland and the giant, ship-shaped San Diego Convention Center. Literally shaped like a sea shell, The Shell looks huge at close range, surrounded on three sides by water, wrapped in white PVC surfaces that are supposed to absorb the sound and prevent echoes.

The entrance to the San Diego Symphony’s Rady Shell.

The facility is supposed to have a capacity of 10,000 seats but will seldom use that many; 3,500 to 4,500 looks to be their “sweet spot” for most events. All seats are portable, as are the tables in the front sections. The grounds are carpeted with a terraced artificial lawn — a wise move in a time of drought in California.

Given all of the factors that make outdoor concerts, especially those near the water, a chancy thing, how does The Shell sound? Judging from the opening concert — an intelligently chosen, even enterprising sampling menu of all kinds of things — the sound is not bad from a rear seat in the front section nearest to the stage, well-balanced with just enough reverberation and a robust, woodsy bass. They’re using the Meyer Constellation Acoustic System within the shell mainly for the benefit of the musicians — first time I’ve heard it applied to an outdoor facility — and up close during a rehearsal, they got impressively clear results.

There was a most dramatic opening gesture to the concert. Without any words from anyone (those came later), Payare appeared in shadow behind a white curtain shielding the stage. He raised his baton, delivered a downbeat, and the curtain came tumbling down, revealing the San Diego Symphony.

The first music heard was a world premiere, a short, zany, high-tech test piece by Mason Bates, Soundcheck in C Major, in which the composer and his laptops peppered sustained chords and a runaway-train scherzo with electronics zapping away on the front speakers and even a mock surround-sound helicopter. Next came a specialty from Payare’s homeland, Aldemaro Romero’s fascinating Fuga con Pajarillo, the fugal playing not the last word in neatness but more than compensated by plenty of fiesta spirit. Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1 raced along at a sometimes hectic pace, with cellist Alisa Weilerstein (married to Payare) showing more welcome temperament than I’ve heard from her in the past.

The San Diego Symphony rehearsing at the Rady Shell before opening night.

To sample how a singer would fare under these conditions, Payare and the SDSO turned to Ryan Speedo Green, listed as a bass-baritone but sounding like a genuine deep basso in the repertoire of the great basso profondo Ezio Pinza. From Gounod’s “Song of the Golden Calf” to Mozart’s “Non più andrai,” Rossini’s “La Calumnia,” and, yes, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “This Nearly Was Mine” (from South Pacific), these were all famous Pinza vehicles, and Green nailed the styles of all with ease, powerfully projected through the speakers.

After intermission, I trekked back to the rear of The Shell grounds where the sound is entirely amplified by the L-Acoustics system coming out of six towers  flanking the seats. The blend there during Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s freewheeling rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was similar to that in the front, though dimmer in volume, and at times almost drowned out by ambient noise from traffic, the Harbor, and chattering groups on the lawn. Hardly any of these distractions could be heard when I returned to my original seat; indeed, not even during the quietest passages of Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite. After subdued activity in the first half, the lighting designers opened up their bag of tricks in the second, projecting Roaring `20s New York and Russian imagery respectively onto The Shell’s rim. And fireworks over the bay topped off the night.

Although one would normally assume that The Shell would be a summer-only facility mainly devoted to pops, the SDSO has bigger ambitions. While Copley Hall undergoes some sonic face-lifting, the orchestra will be taking the unusual step of moving its fall season outdoors into The Shell, thus extending its summer season all the way through November. Payare talks excitedly about doing the Mahler Second or even Mahler Eighth out there; the stage is supposedly deep enough to accommodate a decent-sized chorus. For a start, there will be a Mahler First with the rarely performed “Blumine” movement Oct. 8.

Also, the SDSO’s first recording under Payare will not be one of the usual showpieces; it will be the epic Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, recorded in Feb. 2020, during his last concerts with the orchestra in Copley Hall before the pandemic shutdown, and released on an Apple Music stream. This is an orchestra on the game-changing move on all fronts.