Symphony back on the bay in fine fettle

Scenic and grassy, park pleases folks on opening night

By Valerie Scher
July 5, 2004

There was plenty of feel-good patriotism over the weekend as the San Diego Symphony Summer Pops opened its outdoor season with a "Fourth of July Celebration." Fireworks, flags and a star-spangled program all contributed to the festivities honoring our nation's birthday.

Yet there was also another reason to cheer.

The concerts marked the return to downtown's Embarcadero Marina Park South, the Pops' most scenic site, where performances were presented from 1991 to 1995. The orchestra moved back because downtown's Navy Pier, the concert location in recent years, is now used by the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum.

In terms of quintessential San Diego appeal, neither Navy Pier nor the earlier site at Mission Bay's Hospitality Point can beat the Embarcadero, which has trees, grass and spectacular views of the bay and skyline.

That was apparent during Friday's rousing program (repeated Saturday and yesterday), which featured conductor Pat Pfiffner and the Grand Pacific Band as well as the San Diego Chorus of Sweet Adelines International, with assistant director Kathleen Hansen.

Opening night drew a crowd of approximately 2,300 to the venue that can accommodate 2,750 patrons at cabaret tables, the grandstand and on the lawn. And fortunately, the Pops' worst fears about traffic congestion proved unfounded. Despite the Padres game at nearby Petco Park, which attracted nearly 39,000 baseball fans, there appeared to be no serious repercussions.

True, it may not be as easy as it once was to get to the lovely, tree-studded peninsula behind the expanded San Diego Convention Center. But the effort was well rewarded.

"As soon as we sat down, I said – 'We are so lucky to live in San Diego,' " said first-time Pops-goer Judy Wheeler, 35, a Pacific Beach resident who picnicked on the lawn, where tickets cost $10. "People are having a great time, hanging out with friends and family."

Wheeler's friend, Lynn Larson, was no less enthusiastic. "This is a better location than Navy Pier, where there was asphalt," said the 44-year-old Coronado resident, who wore socks and sneakers with U.S. flag designs. "We can sit on the grass. It's like our own concert in the park."

Those who didn't bring food could visit the booths supplying everything from pork ribs to kettle corn. Restaurant-style service was available at the cabaret tables.

The electronic amplification system effectively spread the sound around the site and the sightlines were enhanced by large video screens next to the concert shell.

Like an updated version of an old-fashioned variety show, the program ranged from light-hearted (Pfiffner's xylophone solo) to solemn (letters from soldiers killed in Iraq, read by narrator Dan Shadwell of KFMB/Channel 8). The band was sometimes grand, as when it got into a Glenn Miller groove. The Sweet Adelines displayed harmonious pizzazz, especially in the "I Love Jazz" medley.

Other highlights included William "Joe" Dyke's fancy playing of his vintage cornet and tap-dancer Aaron Pomeroy's energetic tapping and twirling. Fireworks were accompanied by a Sousa march, showing how some things never change at patriotic pops concerts. Nor should they.

Valerie Scher: (619) 293-1038;

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