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Review: San Diego Symphony opens $85 million new venue, Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, with an eye-popping bang of a show

Rafael Payare conducts the San Diego Symphony at its new venue, The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.
Rafael Payare conducts the San Diego Symphony Friday night at the gala grand opening of its new bayside venue, The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The performance kicked off a 40-concert outdoor season for the new venue, whose lineup includes orchestral performances by Jason Mraz, Police co-founder Stewart Copeland and rapper Nas

Standing ovations abounded Friday as the San Diego Symphony and several guest artists performed the gala grand opening concert at the orchestra’s resplendent new outdoor home, The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.

Yet, while the biggest attraction of the night could not take a bow — namely the eye-popping, almost entirely privately funded $85 million new venue — its star power is simply undeniable. Make that simply and complexly for The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, which broke ground in September 2019, then had its planned July 2020 opening pushed back 13 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which also slowed construction and silenced the orchestra for much of the past year.

That made the symphony’s return and the delayed debut of The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park a doubly welcome cause for anticipation and celebration.

The fact that music director Rafael Payare and the orchestra received a standing ovation before performing a single note Friday underscored just how happy the sold-out audience of 3,500 was to welcome them back and to inaugurate the new year-round venue.

Can the outdoor, year-round bayside venue become a cultural landmark and profit-generator to rival the Hollywood Bowl and Sydney Opera House? California’s oldest orchestra is counting on it

The musicians sounded terrific and not one iota out of practice, albeit it for a deeply ironic reason. While the pandemic led to the cancellation of the symphony’s 2020-21 season and prompted a pivot to online performances, it also provided unprecedented time for Payare to rehearse separately and at length with individual sections of the orchestra.

Moreover, since this spring, the new venue has served as a pristine rehearsal space for the orchestra while its largely shuttered indoor home, Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, undergoes some tweaks and upgrades.

The symphony will perform most of its fall season at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. At Friday’s 2021 opening concert, health considerations were at the fore. All of the string players and percussionists wore masks, as did a fair number of the attendees.

Out of the shadows

A silhouette of Rafael Payare was projected on the stage
A silhouette of San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare was projected on the stage of the orchestra’s new The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park just before Friday’s gala grand opening concert began.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Friday’s audience included Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel, who — like his friend Payare — is a Venezuelan native and a product of that country’s El Sistema public music-education program.

Also in attendance: La Jolla Music Society SummerFest music director Inon Barnatan; an array of San Diego cultural and civic leaders; and the CEOs from the Dallas Symphony, Kansas City Symphony and Canada’s Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, which in 2022 will welcome Payare as its new music director (his contract here runs through at least 2026).

The face of the San Diego Symphony, Payare first appeared at Friday’s concert in silhouette, baton in hand, behind a giant scrim on the venue’s 3,865-square-foot Una Davis Family Stage. It was a striking visual prelude one might expect at a rock concert.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the night’s opening selection — the specially commissioned world premiere of composer Mason Bates’ laptop computer-enhanced “Soundcheck in C Major” — featured musical quotations from “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who.

The rest of the concert’s repertoire was designed to provide a partial sampling of Payare and the orchestra’s artistic range and depth, while showcasing a venue that — to paraphrase comedian Billy Crystal — looked and sounded marvelous.

Credit for this goes to its sleek, shell-like design and its two state-of-the-art audio systems (one, the Meyer Constellation Acoustic System for the performers on stage, the other a K2 system by L’Acoustics for the audience), which together produced concert hall surround-sound quality throughout the panoramic bayside venue.

Thanks to the venue’s six illuminated sound towers, the music’s luxuriant sonic richness was as full, crisp and well-balanced on the turf lawn at the rear of the venue as it was near the stage and various points in between.

The stage itself was a visual component, with images projected onto the white fabric of the shell under which the stage is ensconced. Those images, which were only used during the concert’s second half, were by turns eye-popping and distracting.

Alisa Weilerstein’s cello mastery

The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park San Diego gala opening concert
The panoramic bayside setting of The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park could help the venue become a landmark along the lines of the Hollywood Bowl and Australia’s Sydney Opera House.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Under Payare’s expert leadership, the 78-piece orchestra performed with passion, pinpoint dynamic precision and crystalline clarity throughout Friday’s concert, playing with equal power and grace.

They glided, tip-toed and soared through Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite” and Gershwin’s jazz-inspired “Rhapsody in Blue.” The latter piece featured French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, whose exacting playing was more evocative of Artur Rubenstein than Art Tatum.

Several operatic selections, including pieces from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” spotlighted guest singer Ryan Speedo Green.

His immense voice and finely calibrated delivery were complimented by the orchestra’s wonderfully nuanced and empathetic accompaniment. In one of the concert’s few missteps, Green also sang “This Nearly Was Mine,” one of the less distinguished songs from Rodgers & Hammerstein classic musical, “South Pacific.”

The highlight of the night came with Saint Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33, which featured Payare’s wife, internationally acclaimed cello star Alisa Weilerstein, as its soloist. Her masterful playing was a vibrant master class in combining virtuosity and finesse, while her ability to execute quicksilver lines at a near-whisper with exceptional fluidity and expressiveness was awe-inspiring music making of the highest order.

The new venue’s two sound systems captured even Weilerstein’s most hushed notes with exquisite detail, just as it did the concert’s most rousing moments. The fireworks display that followed the performance almost seemed like an anticlimax to such an acoustically thrilling evening.

“Hearing is believing,” percussionist Jon Szanto told the Union-Tribune Saturday. He has performed with the symphony since 1976 and is a veteran of its tenures at multiple temporary outdoor summer venues here over the decades.

“Rady Shell is so out of the realm of any previous performance space or venue that we’ve done,” Szanto continued. “I’m really happy for the generations of musicians and audiences who will benefit from performances at our new venue.”

The debut of The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park comes just two years after the opening of La Jolla Music Society’s $82 million Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center and its similarly remarkable, 513-seat Baker-Baum Concert Hall.

With these two venues — one intimate and indoors, the other larger and outdoors, both superior in aesthetic quality — San Diego is now home to two of the finest music venues in the nation. That is doubly cause for celebration indeed.

San Diego, CA - August 06: On Friday, Aug. 6, 2021Rady Shell at Jacobs Park
The firework that concluded the San Diego Symphony’s opening concert on Friday at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park were almost anti-climactic.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park inaugural season

When: Concerts continue to run from Sunday’s (Aug. 9) Gladys Knight performance through the Nov. 14 season-closer by the San Diego Symphony and conductor Edo de Waart

Where: Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, 200 Marina Park Way, downtown

Tickets: $45-$250

Phone: (619) 235-0804

Online: theshell.org


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