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Renovated Symphony Hall to Open in November

ARTS: $125M Project Gives Popular Venue ‘Fresh’ Look, Feel

“Sound is built on silence” is something that Martha Gilmer, CEO of the San Diego Symphony is fond of saying.

Martha Gilmer
CEO
San Diego Symphony

Starting in November for the first time, a $125 million renovation of the Jacobs Music Center and Copley Symphony Hall will give the symphony that silence on which to build its performances.

The renovation will have taken more than a year to complete, but it is on schedule to be ready for a formal opening Nov. 4 with the hall open in October for musicians to try out their new home, said John Frane, design principal of HGA Architects.

“It’s going to feel really familiar but really fresh,” Frane said.

Based in Minnesota, HGA designed the renovated Symphony Hall in collaboration with Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks, based in Connecticut, and theater planner Schuler Shook, who is based in Chicago.

“The orchestra has increased in quality over many years, including the time I’ve been listening to them,” said Gilmer, who has been the symphony’s CEO since September 2014.

“A new hall is like getting a new instrument, it allows you to continue that growth because the sound is better,” Gilmer added.

Exciting Connection

Home to the San Diego Symphony since 1985, Copley Symphony Hall at Jacobs Music Center traces its origins to a Fox  movie theater that opened in 1929.

John Frane
Design Principal
HGA Architects and Engineers

“The building has such incredible bones,” Frane said, and Gilmer said touches of the old movie theater have been preserved.

“There’s always an homage to what came before. There are little hints,” Gilmer said, including figures that are part of the original architecture.

“It will still be familiar. All of the beautiful plaster work and all of the artful colors and paint, the chandeliers will be restored and glistening but they’re the same chandeliers from the original so there will be this level of, ‘Oh, this is what I remember.’ At the same time, there will be a compatible, contemporary look to it.”

The silence that Gilmer speaks of as the base upon which the music comes is partly due to a new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system that replaced a noisy one that dated back to 1929.

The new system is suspended in an enclosed space between the roof of the hall and the bottom of a parking garage above it so the noise doesn’t filter down into the hall.

The hall itself has been completely redone, with the number of seats reduced from 2,200 to about 1,700.

“We eliminated seats that in some cases were not occupied,” Gilmer said, primarily because they had poor sight lines to the stage.

Six new balcony box seats were also added.

The layout of the seating has been changed, including the addition of a center aisle that cuts across the seating area from side to side.

The seats that had been all facing forward from when the hall was a movie theater have been rearranged in a semi-circle so people can see other members of the audience to make the experience more communal.

“I’m excited about the connection between the audience on the main floor and the stage. It feels a lot more intimate,” Gilmer said.

Contributing to Downtown

Seats beneath the balcony have been raised, with each row stepping up from the row in front of them.

“That provides an enhanced connection to the stage,” Gilmer said.

The rear wall of the hall has been moved forward and given a differentiated surface “so the sound is reflected in different ways over the audience and back to the stage,” Gilmer said.

A temporary shell that had been around the orchestra has been removed, replaced by a fixed shell.

A choral terrace also has been added to the stage so that the orchestra won’t have to move as it has in the past during choral performances. When there is no chorus, the terrace will be used for extra audience seating.

“The choral pieces that were hard to perform before are easier now because there’s space for the chorus,” Gilmer said.

Downtown San Diego has gone through a renaissance in recent years with the construction of dozens of new apartment buildings, many of which are soaring towers, the reimagining of the former Horton Plaza shopping mall, and the ongoing construction of IQHQ’s life science and office campus on the bayfront.

With the renovation of the Music Center, the symphony is contributing to that renaissance, Gilmer said, which she described as “our way of assuring people come downtown and stay downtown.”

The Nov. 4 official premiere performance in the renovated Symphony Hall is tailored to showcase the improvements, with Music Director Rafael Payare leading the orchestra in a world premiere of work commissioned from Texu Kim, Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels’s Merry Pranks, and the West Coast premiere of a saxophone concerto by Billy Childs featuring soloist Steven Banks.

“The season is filled with great symphonic music, some played many times by this orchestra and some that we have commissioned or are works written in the last five years,” Gilmer said.

San Diego Symphony

Founded: 1910
CEO: Martha Gilmer
Headquarters: Downtown
Business: Orchestra
Employees: 69
Website:  www.sandiegosymphony.org
Contact: 619-235-0804
Notable: With 82 full-time musicians, the orchestra, the oldest in California, performs for more than 250,000 people each season.

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