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The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park is a world-class outdoor music venue

The exquisite new bayside venue captures attention for its beauty as much as for its state-of-the-art technology

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The symmetry of the pristine, open-air Rady Shell at Jacobs Park lends to its uncommon beauty. The performance stage gently slopes to a taller-than-you-think height of 57 feet. It’s 92 feet wide across the front. Hundreds of lights, amps, mics, and high-tech digital gadgets are installed on The Shell’s specially designed, white canopy. This geometrically perfect structure isn’t otherworldly — but the new music venue makes bayside at Embarcadero Marina Park South a divine place to be.

Of all the techy bells and whistles, there’s one component that connects me to the big picture during an October performance by the Rafael Payare-led San Diego Symphony Orchestra: A video camera mounted in the back, stage right. The camera’s lens provides a stunning and unique picture of this world-class venue. 

During the performance, one camera shot pops up again and again on the two video screens that flank the main stage. The angle shows Payare from the perspective of a timpani drummer standing in the back row of the symphony. Payare’s dark, curly hair is bobbing as he waves the baton. Off in the night sky, beyond the conductor’s gesticulations, you see the ethereal image of the white-sailed roof of the San Diego Convention Center. Wait, a marina is situated between the bubbly conductor and the southwestern edge of the city. Are we really outside? The acoustics can’t be this incredibly sharp and undistorted.

They are.

On opening night, a performance of Saint Saëns' Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33 featured Payare's wife, internationally acclaimed cello star Alisa Weilerstein, as its soloist
On opening night, a performance of Saint Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33 featured Payare’s wife, internationally acclaimed cello star Alisa Weilerstein, as its soloist

Look away from the video screen and glance fully to your right. Yup, there’s the convention center, the Marriott Marquis, the Manchester Grand Hyatt. Pan your vision to the left of The Shell. Those are lights from a ferry, chopping through waves and navigating the bay from Downtown San Diego to Coronado. Some seaside harbor in heaven? Nope. The Port of San Diego.

If you don’t want to hear the secrets behind the magic that create this fantasy of The Shell, stop reading here. Otherwise, let’s look at how this project came to be, how it got funded, and the mechanics of why it’s becoming a major attraction.

On August 6, 2021, the San Diego Symphony and several guest artists performed the grand opening concert at the orchestra's new outdoor home, The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park
On August 6, 2021, the San Diego Symphony and several guest artists performed the grand opening concert at the orchestra’s new outdoor home, The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park

Show Me the Money

The search for a permanent outdoor home for the San Diego Symphony spans nearly two decades. Numerous sites around the city were considered. Embarcadero Park on San Diego Bay was the temporary site for the Summer Pops series. Yet, it wasn’t until 2016 that funding for this permanent site began.

The Shell comes with an $85 million price tag. Funding it was part of a $125 million “The Future is Hear” campaign, which will also help cover infrastructure improvements at downtown’s Copley Symphony Hall at the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Music Center, the symphony’s indoor home. In October 2021, 

$111 million of that goal had been recognized, says Sheri Broedlow, vice president of institutional advancement for the symphony. She says $98.7 million of that came from private philanthropists during the campaign’s quiet phase. Four contributors accounted for $51 million of that total. Ernest and Evelyn Rady donated $15 million toward construction and Joan and Irwin Jacobs gifted $11 million. Hence the official name: The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. The Conrad Prebys Foundation contributed $15 million and the Una Davis Family added $10 million to the cause. The public portion of the Future is Hear campaign began on May 7, 2021. Broedlow believes it’s feasible the $125 million goal can be achieved by the end of the year. (For information about making a contribution, email campaign@sandiegosymphony.org.)

How To Build a World-Class Venue

Greg Mueller has been along for the whole 18.5-year ride to build an outdoor venue for the symphony. He’s the CEO and design principal at downtown-based Tucker Sadler Architects. The company has had a hand in too-many-to-mention city-based projects, including the new Portside Pier dining concept on the bay and Carté Hotel in Little Italy.

Mueller himself has worked on musical venues in Tucson and Albuquerque, as well as the recently completed Southwestern College Performing Arts Center. “We’ve learned something every time with these venues,” Mueller says. 

I ask him to compare the iconic Hollywood Bowl to the new Rady Shell. He pauses. “I love the Hollywood Bowl,” he says. “The sound at The Shell is unmatched. We’ve got indoor-quality sound in an outdoor venue for 10,000 people.”

The Shell combines two acoustical systems. Onstage, the Meyer Constellation Acoustic System employs proprietary digital technology to allow performers to hear and respond to each other as if in a top-tier, indoor concert hall. The L-Acoustics system is installed out in the audience bowl of The Shell. It projects sound through six towers that are angled and strategically placed to eliminate distortion or delay.

On The Shell itself, the white material that covers the stage should look familiar. It’s the same Teflon-fiber outer fabric used on the convention center and at San Diego International Airport. Made by a company called Fabritecture, the material is built to withstand harsh salt air that comes off the bay and should last for decades before it needs to be replaced. That same material can also be illuminated. Convenient since The Shell is covered by 3,368 Traxon LED lights.

In keeping with the mission for Embarcadero Park to be for year-round public use, Mueller says The Shell will unveil a unique public art installation in the latter part of 2021. In essence, the installation will include music played over a public address system along with a synchronized light show on The Shell, similar to the colorful lights that often bathe the convention center. “This will be better,” Mueller says. The Shell’s lights will move with the music. It’s expected that on specified evenings, the light show will run for 15 minutes, on the hour and on the half hour. 

Along with state-of-the-art concession areas, better-than-average food, pristine restroom facilities, and a corps of uber-pleasant volunteers, the year-round art installation is one more reason to dub The Shell a slice of heaven by the bay. theshell.org

Image Credits Photography courtesy of San Diego Symphony

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