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San Diego Gets Its Answer to the Hollywood Bowl, Just in Time

San Diego Gets Its Answer to the Hollywood Bowl, Just in Time

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SAN DIEGO — The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, a billowing white sail of an outdoor concert hall along the San Diego Bay, was planned as this city’s answer to the Hollywood Bowl: an $85 million summertime stage for the San Diego Symphony, a project of such architectural and acoustical distinction that it would distinguish San Diego on any national cultural map.

But now, its arrival — it opened with a sold-out gala performance Friday night — has turned out to be welcome for an additional reason. With the stop-and-start coursing of the Covid pandemic, the symphony, finally playing before a full audience again, is planning to extend its stay in its new summer home at least through November. It won’t be returning to its regular venue, the downtown Copley Symphony Hall, for a while.

“It was planned before Covid, but became prescient with the timing,” said Martha A. Gilmer, the chief executive of the symphony. “We just decided we’re going to stay outside and do the fall concerts outdoors.”

And that it did on Friday, inaugurating this new chapter for the state’s oldest symphony with a burst of orchestral music and a dash of electronica that swelled over its six sound-and-light towers and an opening-night crowd of 3,500. The opening fanfare was commissioned from the composer Mason Bates, and it signaled — loudly and dramatically — the musical and sonic ambitions of the San Diego Symphony and the yearning of this city to move on from the pandemic.

It had all the trappings of a big event, a welcome contrast after 15 years in which the symphony’s outdoor offerings relied on temporary stages and portable toilets. The new space was heralded with fireworks, and a six-course dinner with champagne for donors. The night began with a suitably dramatic flair, as the projected image of the orchestra’s music director, Rafael Payare, instantly recognizable to this crowd, filled a scrim raised nearly to the top of the 57-foot-high stage. After a few build-up-the-tension moments, the scrim dropped to reveal Payare and the orchestra, ready to play. That drew the first of many standing ovations.

“In the way that Disney Hall solidified the mission and importance of the L.A. Phil and the cultural life of L.A., I think this new venue will do the same for an orchestra that really is on the ascent,” said Steven Schick, a professor of music at the University of California, San Diego, and the music director of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus. “Those things do happen with new venues.”

There were more suits than masks — though not many of either — as people arrived to celebrate this new addition to the San Diego waterfront. It was a dramatic setting: The skyline of San Diego framed the stage on the right, as the masts of sail boats glided past the audience on the left, some dropping anchor to enjoy the show.

At the Hollywood Bowl, Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, must sometimes contend with the roar of passing helicopters. Here, Payare’s competition was the put-put-putting of boat engines, the blast of an air horn, and occasional “All Right” shouted from a party boat.

The opening fanfare by Bates, “Soundcheck in C Major” — with the composer, 44, sitting in the percussion section, playing an Akai drum machine and two MacBook Pros — was cinematic and bracing. It was composed with this sound system in mind, Bates said in an interview, and written to evoke Wagner, Pink Floyd and Techno beats (he is a D.J. as well as a composer). The whirl of electronic sounds he generated flew out across the audience, ricocheting among the sound-and-light towers.

There would be more familiar fare before the night ended — Mozart, Gershwin, Stravinsky. Alisa Weilerstein, an acclaimed cellist who is married to Payare, was the soloist for the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the soloist on “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Ryan Speedo Green, a bass baritone who is a rising star in the opera world, sang several arias. Gladys Knight (without the Pips) took the stage on Sunday night. But the choice of a new inaugural number was a statement by the San Diego Symphony under Payare, who was appointed in 2019.

“It shows that the San Diego Symphony is thinking about the future,” Bates said. “They could have opened this with any number of overtures, the Candide Overture. But the San Diego Symphony wanted to show to show off the capabilities of their space and also make a statement about new art and new work.”

Construction on the Rady Shell began in September 2019, and it was supposed to open the following summer. That date was, of course, delayed by the pandemic, which made Friday night particularly welcome after a difficult 16 months for culture in San Diego. “It was decimated, and I’m not exaggerating — particularly the performing arts,” said Jonathon Glus, the executive director of the city’s Commission on Arts and Culture. “A lot of the organizations are still just quasi-opened. I think it’s going to be another two or three years until we truly find out the fallout.”

While there were 3,500 people there Friday night, some seated on the red folding seats and others sprawled on the artificial turf, it has a capacity of up to 10,000 seats. And the seats can be removed: It will be a public park when the symphony is not there.

From the beginning, the combination of the new space and the new music director was intended to distinguish San Diego in a state with a roster of strong cultural offerings, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This city’s classical music scene has long existed under the cultural shadow of Los Angeles and Dudamel, and that was a challenge when Gilmer took over as chief executive in 2014.

“There were people who felt they had to get on a train or the 5 to go to L.A. and hear music on a high level,” Gilmer said, referring to the highway that runs from here to downtown Los Angeles. “That has changed. Or we hope that has changed.”

Payare, like Dudamel, is a product of El Sistema, Venezuela’s famed music-training system. He played principal horn under Dudamel at the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, and was a member of the Dudamel fellowship program for conductors at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Dudamel was in the audience on Friday.

Payare, 41, said that the new venue opened up new opportunities. “It is going to be a change not only for classical music, but for guest artists who will be going through California,” he said.

“The views, they are fantastic,” he said. “The sound is phenomenal. As an artist, that is what you want.”

San Diego has always been popular tourist destination, but visitors are more likely to come here for the beach, the weather and Comic-Con than to see the symphony. But in recent years, a number of philanthropists have stepped in to bolster the city’s cultural offerings and raise its profile.

The San Diego Opera almost closed in 2014, after 49 years in operation, but it was revived by a coalition of opera buffs, labor union and community leaders who raised money to transform it and keep it alive. The area has one of the nation’s most prominent regional theaters, the Old Globe. In 2002 the Symphony, which was financially struggling, was saved with a record $100 million gift for its endowment from Irwin Jacobs, the co-founder of Qualcomm, and his wife, Joan. And in 2019 the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center opened as the new home of the La Jolla Music Society.

The lead donation to this project — $15 million — came from Ernest and Evelyn Rady, two of San Diego’s most prominent philanthropists. Rady is a billionaire who built his fortune in insurance and real estate.

“We have always thought of making this a cultural destination as well as a beach destination and weather destination,” said Jacobs, who, with his wife, donated $11 million toward construction of the venue. “There’s a lot here. We don’t get that story out as well as we should.”

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