The San Diego Symphony announces a $125 million revamp of its historic downtown home

Hitting The Right Note

The San Diego Symphony announces a $125 million revamp of its historic downtown home

Rendering of orchestra view of the Copley Hall renovation at San Diego’s Jacobs Music Center. (Courtesy San Diego Symphony and HGA)

Less than a year after debuting the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, a Tucker Sadler Architects-designed “concert hall without walls” as AN contributor Shane Reiner-Roth described the new waterfront performance space, the San Diego Symphony has announced that it is embarking on an expansive $125 million restoration and renovation of its home at the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall.

The historic downtown San Diego venue first opened in 1929 as the Fox Theatre, a luxurious Gothic Revival movie palace designed by San Francisco firm Weeks and Day. The space was conferred to the San Diego Symphony, the oldest symphony orchestra in California, in 1984. Venezuela-born Rafael Payare has served as musical director of the symphony since 2019.

The revitalization of Copley Symphony Hall, described in a press release as a “long-term commitment to the vitality of downtown San Diego and an investment in the artistic ambitions of the orchestra,” will be led by project architect HGA, working in close collaboration with acoustician Akustiks and theater planners Schuler Shook. Per San Diego Symphony CEO Martha A. Gilmer, the symphony’s “new and improved home” at Jacobs Music Center will open in late 2023.

rendering of a concert hall renovation, parterre view of the San Diego Symphony
Rendering of parterre view (Courtesy San Diego Symphony and HGA)
rendering of a renovated concert hall viewed from choral terrace
Rendering of choral terrace view (Courtesy San Diego Symphony and HGA)

As noted by Gilmer, this past summer’s unveiling of Rady Shell at Jacobs Park was a strategic one, timing-wise. In a statement, she described that project as a “first important step because not only is it a fabulous venue, but it has allowed us to shift more of our performances from Jacobs Music Center during construction.”

“After half a dozen years of careful study and planning, we knew this was the moment to take on this important venture,” Gilmer said. “This vital project will preserve and celebrate the extraordinary legacy and architecture of our beloved home, while adding critical new infrastructure and features and enhanced acoustics, which will do so much to serve our musicians, our audiences, and the entire community of San Diego.”

As for the San Diego Symphony’s winter-spring 2022 season, performances will be held at nine different venues in and around San Diego as construction work commences in the coming weeks at the 93-year-old Copley Symphony Hall. The symphony’s “Hear Us Here” performances will be held at, among other venues, the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, the Southwestern College Performing Arts Center in Chula Vista, La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, San Diego’s Civic Theatre, and the Rady Shell.

rendering of a symphony hall with view from balcony
Rendering of accessible balcony view of Copley Hall renovation. (Courtesy San Diego Symphony and HGA)
centerline section render of a concert hall
Centerline section render of Copley Hall renovation. (Courtesy San Diego Symphony and HGA)

Back downtown at the Jacobs Music Center, key elements of the Copley Symphony Hall overhaul, which will “honor the history” of the historic building per the symphony by preserving the extravagant Rococo interior, are set to include: a total reconfiguration of the stage, which will allow for greater flexibility and enable the symphony to perform a “greater variety of large works with chorus” thanks to the addition of a choral terrace behind the orchestra; all new seating, including a complete reimagining of the main seat level that will allow for more flexible seating configurations while also providing improved ADA access, better sightlines, and enhanced comfort for guests. Also included will be the implementation of new, state-of-the-art stage lighting, sound system, and an integrated video display system, and elevated acoustics for both musicians and audience members made possible through a custom-designed permanent orchestra enclosure along with new orchestra risers and a tunable acoustic canopy described as a “collaboration of theatrical, acoustic, and architectural design.”

What’s more, acoustical “tuning chambers” and “variable acoustic” devices will be added throughout the hall, and intimate, dedicated spaces for students and families partaking in the symphony’s Learning and Community Engagement programs will be established. Behind the scenes, musicians will benefit from a suite of new small ensemble rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, visiting artist spaces, a reception room, climate-controlled instrument storage, and an expanded music library.

As part of an initial phase of renovation work, the hall’s current HVAC system has already been replaced and relocated in an effort to free up more performance support space, minimize the amount of ambient noise generated by mechanical systems, and boost the amount of filtration and fresh air following throughout the (currently) 2,248-seat hall. (Per a project fact sheet, the capacity will dip to 1,831 seats post-renovation.)

archival photograph of a historic san diego movie theater
San Diego’s historic Fox Theatre pictured on Opening Day, 1929. ( Courtesy San Diego Symphony Archives)

“To have the opportunity to improve the beautiful hall we call home, and to improve the musical communication on stage with the musicians, as well as to create a more intimate connection with our audiences, is a fantastic dream,” said Payare. “The momentum of this orchestra is infectious and will be increased even more when we return to an exquisitely renovated Jacobs Music Center.”

The Copley Symphony Hall revamp marks the latest transformative redesign for a leading San Diego cultural institution. This past September, the Mingei International Museum reopened at its historic Balboa Park home following a major renovation. Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla is set to open its doors this April after a four-year closure with the completion of a square footage-doubling expansion and renovation project helmed by Selldorf Architects.