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San Diego Symphony Prepares To Open 'The Shell'

The Shell, San Diego Symphony's new state of the art waterfront venue, is shown on April 7, 2021.
John Carroll
The Shell, San Diego Symphony's new state of the art waterfront venue, is shown on April 7, 2021.
The Symphony’s new stage on the Embarcadero...and the excitement over upcoming, in-person only one of the re-opening events that’s being eagerly awaited. The pandemic has put everything from wedding parties to Comic Con on hold ...and now that wait seems to be coming to an end.

The Shell. Such a simple name for something so utterly unique.

“It’s magnificent, it’s elegant and it is ours, it is San Diego’s,” said San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer.


For Gilmer, it is a dream come true.

When she took over the Symphony more than six years ago, the orchestra’s outdoor concerts were held in the same place, but in a markedly different setting. It was a temporary stage set up each summer and taken down each fall.

The Shell, scheduled to open last year, will host concerts and other events year-round.

“We had a whole season booked last year, so many of those will come forward a year, but there are also new artists that we’re gonna partner with, and you know we’re going to do movies, we’re going to do mariachi, we’re going to do full-on symphonic concerts, we’re going to do guest performers,” Gilmer said.

All of it held in a venue that is state-of-the-art in every way.


There are several reasons this place is so amazing.

The lighting design includes lights on the Shell itself and on towers surrounding the venue that will create a feast for the eyes.

But it is the sound that elevates the musical experience to stratospheric levels, from the stage to the very back row.

“There are microphones on the stage and speakers on the stage that create basically an indoor acoustic environment for our musicians. They have the most beautiful blended sound and they can hear each other exquisitely, so the music-making is going to be first-class,” Gilmer said.

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The large, familiar-looking speakers on stage facing outward are obviously for the audience’s ears, but it’s the speakers on these towers that will make the sound out here so special.

“Those speakers are surround speakers, create a surround sound for the audience, you’ll feel enveloped and also there’s a delay in it so that you will have a synchronized present sound,” Gilmer explained.

That sound will easily reach the shores of Coronado, but Gilmer says the Symphony wants to be a good neighbor. The state-of-the-art sound design will help with that.

“We have real-time sound monitoring devices on the soundboard itself, at the back of this property and on Coronado, so that it’s all feeding to the people running the sound,” said Gilmer.

The design and construction of this new venue go way beyond the Shell itself.

A raised berm has opened up a much larger area for seating. The old set-up allowed for only about 2,800 at most. The new design will allow seating arrangements of between 3,500 and 8,000, up to 10,000 for certain special events. The old food vendor trailers are long gone, replaced by some of the best culinary experiences San Diego has to offer.

San Diego Symphony Prepares To Open ‘The Shell’

“We have Richard Blais, who will be creating incredible meals in the kitchen, fully equipped, beautiful kitchen, 3-course dinners that can be served at your table... We’ve got Lola 55 tacos, we have gourmet pizzas, we have Tracy Borkum and her pasta salads, of course beverage of your choice,” Gilmer said.

Apart from the stunning stage, the amazing state-of-the-art lighting and sound, there is another big difference with this new venue. If you were here before and you had to go to the bathroom, you were stuck using porta-potties. Not anymore. There are now 62 new bathrooms stationed in a hallway, all of it under the seating area.

When it’s not being used for performances, the venue won’t just sit empty. 85% of it will turn into a public park.

But as “public” as it is, the cost to San Diego taxpayers was minimal. The city chipped in about $50,000 of the $85-million price tag, nearly all of that coming from donors.

An exact date is yet to be set, but Gilmer says The Shell will open this summer, August at the latest.

Then, this dream turned into reality by 133 people from 32 companies will come to life. It will be here, in this breathtaking setting for generations to come, for the artists of the future to continually breathe new life into it.

“And make it something that San Diego is known for, looks forward to, and that is just an iconic part of our city," Gilmer said.

San Diego Symphony Prepares To Open 'The Shell'
Listen to this story by John Carroll.