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I went to hear our San Diego Symphony lest night in their new waterfront venue, the Rady Shell.


They were playing some of my favorite pieces (Beethoven #7, Schumann Piano Concerto, Wagner Tannhäuser Overture) rather than the summer pops stuff they used to do, and I hadn't been to a concert of theirs since the new conductor arrived.  The names (of the conductor and musicians) are an artifact of their photo and not present on the real shell. They can do cool light shows on the surface but didn't do this last night. Not present in the photos are two large teevee screens on either side of the shell. Various soloists are highlighted at the appropriate points and it's neat to see them up close. I used this picture because it shows a number of interesting details from the audiophile point of view:

(1) There are a lot of speakers to convey the sound of the orchestra. Not shown are the "surround sound" speakers on towers behind the audience. The setting is very nice, and some boats from the adjacent marina pulled up to freeload on the performance, but the vendor who did (some or maybe all of the acoustic design says they tried to keep the sound confined to the performance area to avoid noise complaints from nearby offices, hotels, condo towers, the convention center, etc.


(2) The orchestra sits pretty far back in the shell, presumably for sound reasons. The fabric covering the structure is a mesh with transparent material over a white fiber structure. This would seem disastrous from an acoustic point of view. The wall behind the orchestra actually is mostly glass, but they had the curtains drawn last night as shown above.

Last night the seating configuration was different from what's shown in the picture above, but we were approximately at the left edge of the white area in the middle of the photo. Any closer and it would have been harder to see the performers. I'm not a fit judge of which municipal orchestra is better than another, but the playing sounded very good. Unfortunately both my non-audiophile wife and I were quite aware of the sound seeming to come mostly from the left-hand speaker tower rather than the orchestra itself. And in fact the whole thing was quieter than we would have liked, particularly in the softer passages. The finale of the Beethoven was good and loud, though, and Rafael Payere, the conductor, is athletic and energetic on the podium, great fun to watch. On several occasions, though, horn passages seemed to enter too loudly and the percussion was often muffled and indistinct. Seagulls made occasional contributions to the performance, which was fun.

It occurs to me that this is kind of the ultimate problem in "room" treatment. The conductor ensures that the performance sounds right to him, and then the technicians have to somehow make it sound right to an audience. In the linked description the acoustic vendor talks about digital signal processing so in fact we really weren't hearing an "acoustic" performance at all.

I lived in Denver when the now-defunct Denver Symphony Orchestra debuted their "vineyard-style" facility, the Boettcher Concert Hall, which I believe was the first of its type in the US. It was modeled after the home of the Berlin Philharmonic, and is supposed to provide good sound in every seat. It took them quite a while to tune it , and a lot of the effort involved adding the conical sound-reflective disks visible above the state in the photo above. So I'm hopeful that SDSO can make some progress on this, but I'd still rather hear them in their regular venue, which is an old Fox Theater with modern office buildings and hotels wrapped around it.



Edited by John Gallup
Get photo of Boettcher Hall
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Very interesting John. As an architectural designer, it looks very cool, but as you pointed out, may not do a performance justice. It seems they may have to artificially supplement the sound for the audience, which is unfortunate as you want to hear an orchestra acoustically.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s hall is incredible, especially given when it was designed and built. Way ahead of its time. I have a subscription to the Berlin Philharmonic via The Digital Concert Hall and watch their performances live. What a great and intimate hall it is, and incredibly modern as well. As a Clevelander, I have had the chance to see the Cleveland Orchestra numerous times at Severance Hall. More of a ‘classical’ performance hall, but sounds great. Interesting, George Szell very rarely recorded there though, preferring the local downtown Masonic Temple Hall instead, as it had better acoustics for recordings. Other Conductors who followed Szell did the same. I always found that interesting as Severance and the Orchestra sounds great in the audience.

Hopefully they can get the ‘shell’ sorted out, but although it looks cool, to me, it just looks like something that may be more a problem than a benefit for live acoustical performances.


Edited by bkeske
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Thanks for sharing. I love classical music, but have never been exposed to it. I have no idea what I do and don’t like.  I’ve always felt a bit “less than” when it comes to talking classical music with my audio friends. 

I live reading these stories and when you add photos, I’m all in. Miss living in SD. That just looks stunning.  Music on the water is fun. 


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John, the Rady Shell looks like it's a gorgeous venue. Such a treat that San Diego will have two good venues once Copley Hall is back up and running. (I've not been to either, but I imagine that Copley Hall will be nice once it's renovation is complete.) I agree that good sonics can be a challenge in outdoor venues. As I think about it, it may be a case of smaller is better.  When I read your post last Sunday I think I had just seen Dead and Co the night before at the Hollywood Bowl. I went as a guest of a buddy of mine who is a long time Dead head. The Bowl is big. Seats around 17,000. We were up in the benches and the sound and the mix was  . . . adequate. At some point during the show I thought about the audiophile adage one often reads on the sites that the way to get a handle on how to define good sound is to hear live music. Well, if my system sounded like the Bowl, I'd be running for the alignment tools, checking the connections, measuring speaker placement to figure out what was wrong. LOL.

My experience has been that at the larger outdoor venues here, like the Bowl and the Greek - seating capacity just under 6,000, the quality of sound is dependent on where you are sitting. The closer to the stage the better. Beside the mixing board a plus. On the other hand at a smaller venue like the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, directly across the 101 from the Bowl, sounds great. We saw Cecile McLorin Salvant there four or five weeks ago and it was terrific. Of course the JAF only seats 1100. I guess I've come to realize that at the outdoor venue, it's best if my expectations are calibrated to enjoy the atmosphere and the show instead of getting completely bagged up with the sound.

On the other hand, the past two nights my wife and I have been at the Dorothy Chandler. On Friday to hear a concertization of a Handel opera, Alcina, which was engaging and amusing and altogether satisfying. And last night we saw a spectacular production of Tannhauser. One of the best productions I've seen. All the singers were so good. As was the staging and direction and production design. Again, I was listening to the presentation and wondering how it would translate into my 14' by 25'  living room. Well, the scale of a 50 foot wide stage with a big orchestra in the pit and 40 members of the chorus belting away on stage from our seat in row V in the orchestra would be hard to replicate. But I could certainly get into the ballpark at home with the mix and the tone and the approximate heft of the music.

Disney Hall is the place where, when I leave I think, THAT is what I want my system to sound like. Unforced, effortless, every seat in the house sounds good. A feel a sense of calm and relief when I'm hearing music there.

BTW, I too love Beethoven's 7th. In fact I'd say to Peter S that it was the 2nd movement of the 7th Symphony that really got me to dive into classical music. Even though that 2nd movement is the "slow" movement, it sounds like Rock and Roll to me. And that's when I really put it together that Beethoven wrote killer hooks and had a rock and roll heart.

Peter, if you are interested, here's a link to a podcast series and NPR station somewhere did a few years ago that cover the 9 symphonies. The episodes aren't long. And Jan Swafford, who takes us through the music is a musician and a writer and has written a terrific bio of  Beethoven that I'm in the midst of. Just thought it might give you a little context to help you find your way into the classical scene.


Rock on, John

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Thanks for sharing g guys. Been to the Hollywood Bowl once when Tyler and Perry were inducted to their Hall of Fame. Was looking at colleges with my daughter. We loved it. We were in handicap seating up front on the left of stage. The sound we very good for an outdoor venue. 

I just go to listen to the music. Good acoustics are a bonus for me. I love Bonamassa and always get center stage nothing further back than row 5 so far. I love that. Red rocks is still the best outdoor venue for so many reasons. Carnegie was great for his acoustic concerts. Seeing him at The Bushnell in Hartford in March I believe. I got row 15 I believe. It’s a great indoor venue.  

it’s all about the live experience for me. 

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