Friday, May 21, 2021, turned out to be a red letter day for the San Diego Symphony. In the morning, the orchestra unveiled four months of pops and classical orchestra programming it will present at the new Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, and Friday evening the organization released online the first San Diego Symphony concert, with Music Director Rafael Payare conducting, from the new venue on San Diego Bay.The most exciting news, the news San Diego music lovers have been waiting for, is the opening performance at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on August 6, 2021. This grand opening will mark the return in San Diego of live orchestra with the audience present in its usual configuration. For this singular event, Payare will premiere Mason Bates’ newly commissioned work “Soundcheck in C Major,” and noted French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet will be featured in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Alisa Weilerstein will solo in Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1, and Metropolitan Opera bass baritone Ryan Speedo Green offer a set of arias. Payare included Mason Bates’ 2011 “Alternative Energy” on his first San Diego Symphony concert as Music Director in the fall of 2019, and Principal Guest Conductor Edo de Waart has also championed this American composer’s works with the orchestra.
That opening weekend continues with two additional programs: on August 7, well-known Broadway conductor Rob Fisher will lead a quartet of vocalists—Megan Hilty, Norm Lewis, Kelli O’Hara, and Adrienne Warren—with the orchestra in an entire program of Broadway songs. On Sunday, August 8, Gladys Knight, the Empress of Soul, takes the stage accompanied by her own ensemble.
In this four month season held at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, another six programs featuring the orchestra performing traditional symphonic repertory are slated. On August 20, guest conductor Aram Demirjian will lead an all Beethoven program, and on September 10, New Zealand conductor Gemma New, who made a spectacular debut with the Symphony in the spring of 2019, will take the helm for a Tchaikovsky spectacular, the sort of program that typically concluded the orchestra’s Summer Pops season.
Pianist Inon Barnatan, who is also the Music Director of La Jolla SummerFest, will solo in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major on October 8, with Payare leading Mahler’s First Symphony on the same program. On October 16 and 17, Payare returns to lead a program of a Mahler song cycle and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and this outdoor season will conclude with matinee concerts led by Edo de Waart on November 13 and 14. Perhaps evening bayside events in mid-November could turn out to be a chilly affair.
The pops offerings at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park range from legendary singer and songwriter Smokey Robinson on August 21 to the folk rock duo known as the Indigo Girls on October 10. Rock star and composer Stewart Copeland, founder of the Police, will premiere his work “Police Deranged for Orchestra” with the San Diego Symphony on August 27, Edwin Outwater conducting.
Grammy winning singer and songwriter Jason Mraz will also appear with the orchestra on September 26, and the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead will be honored on October 31 with a program titled Ofrenda: A Día de los Muertos Celebration that features participation by Ballet Folklórico de Los Angeles and the Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar.
Several conclusions could be made watching Friday’s online release of the first orchestra concert played a the Rady Shell. The stage appears wider and deeper than the former temporary SummerPops stage erected on this site in previous seasons. The new stage comfortably accommodated some 50 players for Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major, even with everyone still properly distanced for COVID-19 restrictions. The design of the high arch overhead also adds to the feeling of onstage comfort and openness. The shell’s uncluttered, modernist design suggests classical decorum that focuses on the venue’s primary purpose—to project and communicate music.
From this recorded concert, the shell’s sonic quality appears first-rate, although not until we are seated in the middle of the audience in front of the shell will we be able to judge the venue’s true acoustical properties. The massive battery of suspended speakers at the top edge of the shell certainly appears formidable.
In addition to the orchestra’s and Payare’s ebullient yet deftly detailed account of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, this program opened with Richard Wagner’s “Sigfried Idyll,” a chamber-sized work that ranks as the most understated work by the composer The Ring Cycle, opera’s only four-evening extravaganza. Although I expected the first music from this new venue to be more of a blazing fanfare, this gentle piece gave the first-chair players of the brass and woodwind sections ample opportunity to display their most sophisticated solo capabilities.