The San Diego Symphony invests $210 Million to improve the concert experience

Jeers to Cheers in San Diego

Copley Symphony Hall

When my wife and I moved to San Diego from Michigan more than 25 years ago, we were disappointed in the city’s symphony orchestra and its performance venues. We had been spoiled by conductor Neeme Järvi and his admired and often recorded Detroit Symphony. Had I reacted like a sports fan, I would have jeered the first time I heard the San Diego Symphony. Instead, I cringed in discomfort at botched notes, ragged entries and poor acoustics at both indoor and outdoor concerts.

My cringes have turned to admiration. The orchestra has made impressive improvements in the quality of performances and concert venues, but national and international recognition of the orchestra’s strength has been slow to develop. Unlike its Detroit counterpart, few outside the city have ever heard it. When Raphael Payare became its conductor in 2018 and Music Director the following year, a Discogs listing showed its most recent recording had been released in 2009. The drought finally ended in 2022 when Platoon Records, an Apple subsidiary, captured Payare’s powerful reading of Shostakovich’s 11th symphony.

Raphael Payare

That same year, Payare was named Music Director of the better-known Montréal Symphony while retaining the same position in San Diego, and additional recognition of his skills came with last November’s California Festival: A Celebration of New Music. Payare joined Gustavo Dudamel and Esa-Pekka Salonen, his Los Angeles and San Francisco counterparts, in curating the festival’s composers and a huge mix of symphonic and smaller-group performances of works composed in the prior five years.

During the festival, the San Diego Symphony played three concerts. They included a co-commissioned work by Billy Childs and world premieres of music by Carlos Simon, Vladimir Tarnopolski and Juan Colomer. All three concerts were held at the Symphony’s modern waterfront amphitheater, The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. The Rady opened in 2019 with comfortable seating for up to 10,000, gentle breezes off the bay, and a state-of -the-art sound system that brought a ‘WOW’ from Payare’s friend Dudamel.

At one of the first concerts there, I was waiting for a food order just behind Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer whom I had first met when I interviewed her shortly after she had left as a Chicago Symphony vice president to take the top job in San Diego. I complimented the new venue, then, with some trepidation, suggested that the sound was better than symphony hall. Her reply was a swift, and determined, ‘We’re fixing that.’

And, with the outdoors conquered, the Symphony indeed did announce a plan for major renovations at the indoor facility. The waterfront project was completed on time, despite threatened COVID-related delays and California’s often challenging approval processes, but the hall renovation has slipped a year. Scheduled concerts were moved to The Rady and several other concert venues in or near San Diego. The revised launch date is September 28 following completion of a $125 million renovation. That comes on top of the $85 million needed to complete The Rady.

Improved sound was important for both projects. Modern surrounding speakers and new electronic gear changed the Symphony’s outdoor impact from that of an AM radio playing in another room when I first attended 25 years ago, to something I would love to have in my home, though perhaps on a smaller scale, especially when listening to the 1812 Overture.

For the Symphony’s hall, one of the most important acoustic changes is the elimination of a balcony overhang that deadened sound at the rear of the main floor. Eight rows of seats have been removed and the orchestra-level rear wall moved forward.

Numerous other changes, physical and electronic, have been made at both venues to improve the overall concert experience and sound quality for both audiences and musicians. Payare and his players are delighted with the resulting stage acoustics. When orchestra members can hear each other more clearly, it is easier for the conductor to balance sections and to provide effective support for soloists.

The renovated Copley Symphony Hall will open with the world premiere of a work commissioned for the occasion, Texu Kim’s ‘Welcome Home!!’

The weather is no longer the only reason for classical music lovers to visit or move to San Diego.

Ron Bierman

For more about the San Diego Symphony’s new season CLICK HERE.

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