San Diego Symphony fine-tunes The Shell, its new $85 million bayside venue, and prepares to launch concerts

The Shell, shown above on March 24, 2021
The Shell, shown above on March 24, 2021, is the San Diego Symphony’s new bayside venue. It can accommodate audiences of between 3,500 and 8,000,with up to 10,000 for some special events each year
(Jenna Selby / San Diego Symphony)

The year-round outdoor concert and events venue will ‘open as soon as it’s clear the time is right,’ says San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer


Concert presenters across San Diego County and much of the nation are counting the days until coronavirus-pandemic restrictions ease sufficiently for ticketed live events to safely resume. But the San Diego Symphony is in the unique position of being poised to unveil a brand new, state-of-the-art venue that this year will welcome its first audiences.

The Shell is likely the most ambitious new outdoor concert venue of any kind to open in Southern California, if not the state, since Coors Amphitheatre (now North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre) opened in Chula Vista in 1998. Moreover, The Shell will be the first permanent, year-round bayside concert venue in the nation that is operated by a symphony orchestra.

The $85 million venue at downtown’s Embarcadero Marina Park South will offer a stage-side gourmet kitchen headed by Del Mar-based celebrity chef Richard Blais, the winner of TV’s 2011 “Top Chef: All Stars” competition. It will also feature two open-air pavilions with beers from local brew masters and food from Biga, Lola 55 and other San Diego restaurants.

“We are preparing to open as soon as it’s clear the time is right,” said San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer. “It’s just a question of when, not if.”

Those sentiments are seconded by The Shell’s principal designer, Greg Mueller, who is the owner of San Diego’s Tucker Sandler Architects, Inc.

“If the state said: ‘Tomorrow, you can hold a concert here,’ we would,” Mueller said. “We’re just doing some really fine-tuning now. It’s such a state-of-the-art facility that we’re being very nitpicky about getting it perfect.”

The price tag reported for The Shell in 2018 was $45 million, not the current $85 million, but Gilmer stressed an important distinction for the nonprofit symphony.

“We put $45 million in the agreement with the San Diego Unified Port District as a minimum amount. That continued to be reported, (but) it wasn’t a number we ever released,” she said.

“Some of the costs wouldn’t have been fully apparent until we started construction, such as the pilings (installed under parts of the venue) or finding extra holding tanks for the plumbing. ... What we invest up-front will save us in operating costs long-term.

“We are on track (budget-wise). And we know our dream is a reality and that we’ll have the support necessary. This is a quintessential venue that will last for lifetimes. And, with only $50,000 in public funding, it is a great gift for San Diego.”

The Shell, the San Diego Symphony's new venue
“The Shell has a mind-blowing organic quality,” says San Diego Symphony Music Director Raphael Payare. “You actually can hear all the (different sound) balances and perform the way you would in a concert hall, not an outdoor venue.”
(Jenna Selby / San Diego Symphony)

‘Like a top-notch concert hall’

The Shell was originally scheduled to debut last July. The pandemic-fueled shutdown of live events forced the symphony to push back the opening until this year. Now, after 15 days in March of audience-free rehearsals at The Shell by members of the orchestra — who also were filmed there for several upcoming online concerts — the panoramic venue has already proven its superior sonic and visual capabilities.

“It’s an amazing, spectacular outdoor venue,” said Rafael Payare, the symphony’s energetic music director. “The sound onstage is unbelievable. ... We can hear each other wonderfully and you feel like you are in one of the top-notch concert halls in the world.

“From the very first rehearsal we had at The Shell, it was fantastic. I’ve performed at Tanglewood (in Massachusetts), Ravinia (near Chicago) and at the Hollywood Bowl, and the sound at each is good. But The Shell has a mind-blowing organic quality. You actually can hear all the (different sound) balances and perform the way you would in a concert hall, not an outdoor venue.”

Credit for this goes to the exacting design and construction of The Shell — and to the Meyer Constellation Acoustic System installed above, at the rear, and to either side of the stage for the musicians to hear themselves with as they perform. A digitally based acoustic enhancement system, the Constellation utilizes an array of top-quality loudspeakers, digital processing, reverb enhancing equipment, microphones, patented algorithms and various proprietary certification techniques.

Audiences at The Shell will hear the music through a different sound system, the L-Acoustics. It is mounted above the stage at specific angles facing concertgoers, as well as on six audio towers — three on either side of the stage, within the seating area. Like The Shell itself, the L-Acoustics sound system is angled away from Coronado, where the symphony has installed offshore decibel measuring equipment to ensure volume levels at concerts are carefully controlled and residents are not disturbed.

“The shape of the stage is similar to the Hollywood Bowl,” Payare said. “But being right by the water is so striking that it will make The Shell a landmark. Don’t get me wrong: The Hollywood Bowl and other (outdoor) venues are great. But at The Shell you see the beautiful San Diego Bay, and the city skyline, and feel like you are in a concert hall. So, it will really be an immersive experience when we fully open.”

Just how good The Shell sounds and looks was further demonstrated at a private March 24 concert filming at the venue that will stream later this spring on the symphony’s website.

Attended by a handful of masked, socially distanced guests, the “Broadway by the Bay” performance featured versatile vocal star Bryonha Marie Parham. She was expertly accompanied by a quartet that included veteran pianist Rob Fisher and San Diego jazz mainstays Rob Thorsen on bass and Bob Boss on guitar.

Although only 30 percent of the L-Acoustics sound system at the outdoor venue was in use for that concert, the audio quality was full-bodied, richly textured and crystal clear from the front of the stage to the last row of seats. The lighting was similarly impressive at The Shell, which from different angles and distances suggests Australia’s famed Sydney Opera House and a bayside version of the landlocked Hollywood Bowl.

“It’s so inspiring up here,” pianist Fisher told the small, invitation-only audience of symphony donors.

“I loved the view here before on that rickety old thing you called a stage, but this exceeds my expectations and you should be proud. ... The Shell is your home. You should enjoy it for years to come.”

Or, more specifically, for at least the next 50 years.

That is the length of the initial lease, with options to extend, that the symphony signed with the San Diego Unified Port District for use of the 3.47-acre site. The port unanimously approved the project, followed by the California Coastal Commission in late 2018. Construction began in the fall of 2019 on The Shell, which was designed by a team that numbers 133 people from 32 companies.

It has been, by any standards, a massive undertaking.

The Shell’s rolled-steel frame weighs three tons, stands 57 feet high and measures 92 feet in width at the front of the 3,865 square-foot stage. The audience seating area covers 54,590 square feet, while the permanent public restrooms — located under the elevated seating section near the rear of the venue — take up 2,390 square feet. The Shell can accommodate audiences of between 3,500 and 8,000 per concert, with up to 10,000 for a few special events each year.

Between 2004 and 2019, Embarcadero Marina Park South was the site of the symphony’s annual Summer Pops concert season, which in more recent years operated under the name Bayside Summer Nights. But that was on a temporary stage, erected each summer and taken down each fall, for seasons that never exceeded more than three-dozen concerts.

The Shell is approved to stage up to 110 events a year by the symphony and other organizations, including outside promoters, convention groups and private or public groups. On days when concerts are not taking place, up to 85 percent of the park will be open to the public, including several restrooms that will be open year-round.

“This is the first time a public park in California has been turned into a venue like this,” head designer Mueller said.

“So, kudos to the entire team for making sure we met all the requirements of the port commissioners and the California Coastal Commission to make this a public venue as well as a venue for the symphony.”

Gilmer noted that the symphony has a partnership with the San Diego Padres. The 111-year-old orchestra will also work closely with the adjacent San Diego Convention Center, nearby hotels and the San Diego Tourism Bureau to maximize use of The Shell by tourists and residents alike.

“It is intended to be a year-round facility with rentals during various times,” Gilmer said.

“We are talking to other organizations about how we can activate parts of the park when we’re not here, because keeping it vital as a year-round destination is our goal. We want it to be a place where you can bring kids for after-school programs, whether it’s yoga or learning to play the violin. We’ve been in discussions with San Diego Unified School District. And we’re talking about interesting ways of introducing new audiences to the venue.”

For Payare, the symphony’s innovative music director, the sky is the limit — literally — for The Shell.

“We could do some crossover projects with people parachuting in, while the orchestra is performing, or maybe have some artists skating on the sidewalk around the (perimeter of the) venue as we are playing,” he said.

“Every time I go there, I think of something new we could do.”