A permanent outdoor venue has been a long-time dream for the San Diego Symphony. In summers past, it would take several weeks to build a temporary stage at the top of the season and another two weeks to take it down. But this weekend, the symphony christened its new year-round structure, The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, with three performances, concluding on Sunday with a show by Gladys Knight.
“About 15 years ago, the Orchestra settled here at Embarcadero Marina Park South and it was a temporary venue with no sides, just kind of blowing in the breeze,” says San Diego Symphony CEO Martha A. Gilmer from a venue table overlooking the water. “We wanted it to be a beautiful place for the orchestra to hear themselves and be able to achieve really high-level performances that then can be brought to the audience. Our primary concern was sound.”
The Rady Shell is the centerpiece of the 3.7-acre Jacobs Park, a public space that overlooks the marina and provides a 360-degree view of downtown San Diego. The performance shell features concentric, widening, oval rings as its canopy — a structure that reaches a height of 57 feet and a width of 92 feet at the front of the stage. For opening weekend, the shell hung over the first few rows of patrons who showed up for concerts from Rafael Payare conducting the San Diego Symphony on Aug. 6, the Symphony’s “The Best of Broadway” showcase on Aug. 7 and seven-time Grammy winner Knight, who closed out the series on Aug. 8.
The symphony will work with the Port of San Diego to program 110 days throughout the year. The remainder of the time, the space will continue to function as a public park with revamped basketball courts and exercise areas.
“This is a very unique partnership with the Port. Eighty-five percent of the time this is a public park. People can come and walk around. They can sit and listen to rehearsals. They can watch art being made,” says Gilmer. “Then 15% of the time, we occupy it. Keeping that balance was critical. I think the Port saw this as a real opportunity for activating our coastline and bringing people to the bay that haven’t been down here before.”
For Knight’s performance, the venue was outfitted to welcome 3,500 guests – both seated and spread out on the lawn. The audience, however, extended to passersby who pulled up outside the park gates with blankets and lawn chairs and even the occasional pet. On the water, boats anchored themselves around the shell to take in the show.
The Rady Shell can be configured for up to 10,000 guests and features a nearly 13,000-square-foot open-air dining plaza that can also be utilized for pre-event functions. Gilmer says the Symphony hopes to use the park’s various spaces for free entertainment for locals, multi-stage festivals and more.
“We just want to make sure that art is accessible,” says Gilmer. “As I say, the creative is not exclusive. It is inclusive. That’s really a very important part of the mission.”
The Rady Shell’s upcoming schedule includes Nas with The San Diego Symphony, comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, Smokey Robinson, Brian Wilson, Gary Clark Jr. and plenty of performances from the Orchestra. The Orchestra will also perform alongside popular films like The Goonies and Rocketman.
“I think artists are going to absolutely want to make sure this is part of their tours going forward, because it is a brand-new, state-of-the-art venue,” says Gilmer. “When you’re standing on that stage and you’re looking at this view it is an inspiring place to be.”