San Diego Symphony cancels summer season, delays opening of its $45 million concert venue, The Shell, until 2021

The Shell, the San Diego Symphony's new, year-round outdoor concert and events venue, was scheduled to open July 10. Its opening has now been pushed back to next year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
(Courtesy San Diego Symphony)

Decision to push back a year comes a day after the Los Angeles Philharmonic canceled its 2020 summer season at the Hollywood Bowl


The San Diego Symphony’s much-anticipated July 10 opening of The Shell, its new $45 million, year-round outdoor concert venue, has been pushed back to the summer of 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision to postpone the opening of the bayside venue — and in turn, its summer season — was described as “devastating” and announced “with extreme disappointment” Thursday afternoon by San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer and Music Director Rafael Payare.

The move follows the March cancellation of the remainder of the symphony’s 2020 spring season at downtown’s Copley Symphony Hall. All 34 concerts in this year’s inaugural opening season of The Shell, which is located at Embarcadero Marina Park South, are now canceled. Construction will continue as scheduled, Gilmer said.

“We really made the decision in the last 10 days, but we had a growing sense our summer season would be pushed back,” Gilmer told the Union-Tribune Thursday by phone.

Gilmer cited health concerns and state directives as being key in the symphony’s decision to postpone the opening of The Shell.

“There a lot of close quarters when you are backstage and have visiting guest artists who are crossing through many regions and cities,” she said. “It became apparent many artists were thinking of canceling their tours, so it was mutual. Everybody realized this isn’t the time. ...

“It’s a sad, sad day, as so many people were excited and looking forward to the opening of The Shell. But the fact is, we are all well and healthy, and this postponement is a disappointment, not a tragedy, and we’ll move on.”

Payare, who assumed his position as the symphony’s Music Director only last fall, also did his best to look beyond this year’s cancellation to next year.

“Even though it makes me sad that we have to postpone the opening of The Shell, I’m really looking forward to when the time is right and we can be together again,” he said in a statement. “The Shell ... is going to be such a fantastic venue, and I can’t wait to make music there.”

The Shell, the San Diego Symphony's new, year-round outdoor concert and events venue, was scheduled to open July 10. Its opening has now been pushed back to next year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
(Courtesy San Diego Symphony)

The decision to delay by a year the opening of The Shell is a blow to the symphony and its audience. But it is not a surprise, given how many other concert series, festivals and tours of all musical styles have fallen through this summer because of the pandemic.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced it was canceling its entire 2020 summer season at the Hollywood Bowl for the first time in its nearly 100-year history. This followed the May 1 cancellation by the Chicago Symphony of its 2020 season at Ravinia, where it has performed each summer since 1944.

At least one of the groups booked to perform at The Shell in August — the Yo-Yo Ma-led Goat Rodeo — was also scheduled to perform the same month at the Hollywood Bowl.

The San Diego Symphony, founded in 1910, is the oldest orchestra in California. This is not, however, the first time it has postponed or canceled a season.

Because of World War I, the symphony did not perform between February 1917 and March 1919. Because of World War II, the San Diego Symphony did not perform between Aug. 22, 1941, and August 9, 1949, at its then-summer home in Balboa Park.

The 1986-87 season was canceled for financial reasons, after a contract couldn’t be reached with musicians. The symphony filed for bankruptcy in January 1987 and then underwent financial reorganization. It filed for bankruptcy again in May 1996 and did not return to the stage until the fall of 1998.

Since then, the orchestra has grown in stature, artistically and financially. The addition of Payare last year has provided further momentum, excitement and elevation.

The Shell, the San Diego Symphony's new, year-round outdoor concert and events venue, was scheduled to open July 10. Its opening has now been pushed back to next year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

But that forward progress does not mitigate the challenges posed by the coronavirus on the symphony and the greater art world. The symphony has reduced its staff by 25 percent, said Gilmer, adding: “We are reducing costs across the board. I don’t want to spend money on things, I want to spend it on people.”

State-mandated safe distancing rules have cast doubt on whether any concerts will take place this year in California. What is the prognosis for the symphony’s upcoming fall and winter season, which was announced earlier this year?

“Well, the performers in our orchestra are here,” Gilmer said. “We have guest artists, but we can perform without them. And Rafael is here and so is his wife, (top cellist) Alisa (Weilerstein). And they are ready to go, which is a huge advantage for the San Diego Symphony. It is a time of waiting.”

In the meantime, Gilmer said: “We’re still working on a plan with our musicians. But from a business point of view, it’s a devastating time for the orchestra, for all orchestras, with the loss of all ticket revenues and earned revenues from the rental of their venues (to outside promoters).

“We are working hard on stabilizing funding from individuals and foundations. We are having a great response from our devoted donors. A symphony orchestra is a unique art form. We have 82 full-time musicians to support through this pandemic in some substantive way. It’s very different from other art forms and organizations, which have fewer people.”

In a subsequent email, Gilmer added: “While the orchestra is not able to perform live, they are doing a lot of work in virtual performances including preparing educational materials for students who cannot be in school, creating a ‘thank you’ video for front-line workers, creating a graduation tribute to our graduating seniors, and other individual musical and human expressions to those who are sheltering at home and looking for connection to music.”

The symphony, according to a released statement, is encouraging Shell season subscribers to consider donating the value of their subscription or to keep the value of their subscriptions on account “in order to maintain their seating preferences and help support the San Diego Symphony’s strong future.”