San Diego Symphony’s new seaside venue, the Shell, readies for a summer debut

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The San Diego Symphony will start a new chapter with the July 10 opening of its new, year-round $45-million outdoor concert and events venue, the Shell.

The new facility will replace the symphony’s longtime seasonal Bayside Summer Nights venue, which was located at the same downtown Embarcadero Marina Park South site but had to be set up from scratch each June and then disassembled in September.

The Shell is named both for its design and in honor of its waterfront location between Coronado and the San Diego Convention Center. The new venue will feature a 13,015-square-foot outdoor stage, ensconced by a 57-foot steel shell that measures 33,000 square feet, weighs 270,000 pounds and is covered with two layers of a white, PVC-like fabric. Its appearance may remind some concertgoers of a more intimate version of the Hollywood Bowl.


To celebrate the debut of the Shell, the 111-year-old symphony will host the longest summer-and-beyond outdoor concert season in its history. Confirmed artists include jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, New Zealand rock band Crowded House, Motown legends Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight, and Broadway singing stars Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters and Jennifer Hudson.

Rafael Payare, who last fall debuted as the symphony’s new music director, will conduct at least two concerts this summer at the Shell, starting with the July 10 season opener.

“The Shell will add greatly to the vibrancy of our city,” symphony Chief Executive Martha Gilmer said. “And there are performances we’re producing that you won’t be able to hear anywhere else.”

A construction crew works on the San Diego Symphony's new concert venue, the Shell, located at Embarcadero Marina Park South behind the San Diego Convention Center.
A construction crew works on the San Diego Symphony’s new concert venue, the Shell, located at Embarcadero Marina Park South behind the San Diego Convention Center.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The 2020 lineup at the new venue also includes the Beach Boys, Mexican ranchera music mainstay Aida Cueva, neo-R&B star Maxwell and vocalist Bobby McFerrin, one of three musicians to be named a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters honoree.

The Shell will have a flexible seating capacity that will enable it to accommodate between 2,000 and 10,000 attendees per event, as opposed to the 2,900-to-4,000 capacity at the symphony’s 2019 summer concerts.


Most of the 2020 season concerts will have a seating capacity of 3,660, a number that will increase to around 5,000 for Jennifer Hudson’s July 12 concert and 6,000 for the 1812 Tchaikovsky Spectacular concert on Sept. 13.

Ground for the new venue was broken last fall, after the Port of San Diego agreed to lease a 3.68-acre site on Embarcadero Marina Park to the symphony for up to 50 years. In addition to its permanent new stage, the Shell will include backstage dressing rooms with showers, an on-site music library to house the musical scores performed by the orchestra and a VIP lounge.

The rear of the stage area will include a 5,445-square-foot public viewing deck. The symphony is also building a 68-stall restroom, part of which will be open year-round to the public. The concert site will also be rented out, be it for private functions, groups meeting at the adjacent San Diego Convention Center or other events.

If all goes according to plan, the Shell could quickly become a major asset for the city and the symphony, whose annual fall-through-spring concert season is held indoors at downtown’s nearby Joan and Irwin Jacobs Music Center. The new outdoor venue has been funded largely by private donations, Symphony CEO Gilmer noted.

“The Shell has been the dream and hope of a lot of people for a long time — 17 years — a coming together of nature and culture,” she said.

“I get very emotional about it, because this site has created incredible memories for people who have attended concerts at it for a long time. But this is also an opportunity for people who haven’t been here yet to discover it.”


Where the symphony’s previous summer concert seasons typically ran from late June to early September, the 2020 edition will extend from July 10 to Oct. 1. The expanded seating capacity means that, rather than have some of the same concerts be repeated over two consecutive nights — as was the case at least six times in 2019 — a greater variety of individual concerts can be held.

The stage will be equipped with a Meyer Sound Constellation System, along with an expansive new lighting system. Except for the VIP tables immediately in front of the stage, the seating areas will be on a gently sloping terrace to provide optimal views of the performers.

The maximum volume level for all concerts will be 98 decibels. Audio monitoring devices will be installed across the bay in Coronado to ensure the volume level there does not exceed 45 decibels during concerts held at the Shell.

“We are investing a significant amount of money to make this a premier venue,” Gilmer said. “It is important to us that we do everything right.”

For now, at least, the venue will be simply known as the Shell, without the name of a corporate sponsor affixed to it, although that could change.

“It’s a distinct possibility,” Gilmer said. “But a decision might not be made to do so until a future year.”


Under any name, she said, the Shell should thrive.

“There will be programming year-round at the Shell,“ Gilmer said. “But the next chapter is: ‘How can we activate the park at Shell Park?’ Because, 85% of the time, the park will remain open to the public.... There are more chapters and innovations to come, because it’s a great, welcoming venue.”

Varga writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.