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Epstein Family Amphitheater Debuts with a Memorable Lineup of Sights and Sounds

The Epstein Family Amphitheater San Diego Symphony performance
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The Epstein Family Amphitheater at UC San Diego recently hosted two weeks of debut events, offering thousands of campus and community members a first look at the region’s newest arts and cultural destination. Photos by Erik Jepsen, UC San Diego

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The Epstein Family Amphitheater at UC San Diego recently hosted two weeks of debut events, offering thousands of campus and community members a first look at the region’s newest arts and cultural destination. The new outdoor performance venue was bustling with activity, ranging from performances by the San Diego Symphony to an all-day music festival dedicated to exploring the contributions made by Black artists to electronic music.

During the venue’s debut celebration, Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla emphasized its impact on amplifying the campus’s already robust arts culture.

Students lounge on the lawn during the NIKI concert. 
Students lounge on the amphitheater's lawn during the NIKI concert. 

“UC San Diego has always been home to excellent education, cutting-edge research, world-class healthcare and trailblazing visual and performing arts. Our theatre program is ranked 5th in the world and our fine arts program is ranked 10th in the nation,” shared Khosla. “The opening of the Epstein Family Amphitheater continues that tradition and heralds UC San Diego as the region’s newest premier arts and cultural destination.”

Through its existing spaces such as the Conrad Prebys Music Center and the Loft, UC San Diego provides exceptional access to theatre, dance, music and more through public performances and art shows each year. The recent debut of the amphitheater, which seats about 2,500 guests, greatly expands those offerings for students, staff, faculty and the general public. The venue is located just steps from the Blue Line trolley station and offers increased accessibility to wider audiences throughout San Diego. 

“Spaces like these open minds and forge strong connections,” added Chancellor Khosla. “The amphitheater enriches the residents of our bi-national region and heightens their intellectual and emotional ownership of one of its most prized public assets – UC San Diego.”

Let the show begin

NIKI performs on stage during a sold-out concert for students. 
NIKI performs on stage during a sold-out concert for students. 

The open-air venue kicked things off with a bang, hosting popular Indonesian singer-songwriter NIKI as she performed to a sold-out crowd of UC San Diego students. The concert on Oct. 20 was curated with students in mind and hosted in collaboration with the Associated Students office of Concerts & Events (ASCE).

The amphitheater is designed to be student-centered, faculty- and staff-focused and community-oriented. From its lively array of programming to the grassy lawn that serves as an ideal space to hang out with peers, the venue also helps amplify the student experience as a whole. Daniel and Phyllis Epstein, who committed to provide a $10 million gift in support of the new amphitheater, shared that they were drawn to support the development of the new space for this very reason.

Students cheer in the crowd at the Epstein Family Amphitheater.
Students cheer in the crowd at the Epstein Family Amphitheater.

“I know last night, this place was rocking with students,” said Phyllis Epstein, reflecting on the great turnout for the venue’s first night of programming. “Everyone was here having a marvelous time … and that made me very happy.” 

“I think [the amphitheater] will provide extraordinary support, not only for the arts, but will integrate with all the students on campus,” added Daniel Epstein of his family’s namesake amphitheater.

Performers on stage for the sold-out Halloween-themed drag show.
Performers pose on stage during the sold-out Halloween-themed drag show.

The amphitheater also offers UC San Diego students, staff and faculty the opportunity to sign up for free or discounted-priced tickets for select events. This was the case for the sold-out Halloween-themed drag show on Oct. 28. presented in collaboration with the Undergraduate Colleges, the LGBT Resource Center and the campus’s Triton Fest. The free event featured local performers and talent from Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

A space for campus and community members alike 

The official all-campus debut event of the amphitheater on Oct. 21 was a celebratory occasion that joined members of the campus and San Diego community to enjoy the world-class sounds of the city’s acclaimed symphony. Curated by UC San Diego Distinguished Professor of Music Steven Schick, the “Evening of Celebration with the San Diego Symphony” included pieces of classical music from Igor Stravinsky and Samuel Barber as well as talent from some of UC San Diego’s music faculty and alumni.

UC San Diego Distinguished Professor of Music Steven Schick on stage during the “Evening of Celebration with the San Diego Symphony.
UC San Diego Distinguished Professor of Music Steven Schick on stage during the debut event featuring the San Diego Symphony.

One of the very first works played during the special engagement was Triton’s Rise, composed by Distinguished Professor of Music Rand Steiger. Sixteen percussionists located around the amphitheater played together to create an ocean of sound, with Schick leading percussion at the center of the stage. 

Schick also served as the conductor during a piece from Icelandic composer and UC San Diego alumni Anna Thorvaldsdóttir. Australian conductor Elena Schwarz stood at the podium to conduct work from Barber, Stravinsky and a work titled Bamboo Lights by the Chancellor's Distinguished Professor of Music Lei Liang. Acclaimed violinist Paul Huang also performed in the evening’s program.

The entire venue was buzzing with the sound of excited guests eager to experience the amphitheater for the very first time. 

San Diego Symphony pictured on stage at the Epstein Family Amphitheater.
The San Diego Symphony performs for campus and community members at the Epstein Family Amphitheater.

For Michelle Lou, an assistant professor in the UC San Diego Department of Music, the event was an opportunity to listen to music from some of her colleagues. “[The amphitheater] is amazing …  It also opens up a lot of performance opportunities that are maybe a little more experimental,” said Lou, who received her undergraduate and graduate degree from UC San Diego in double bass performance and composition. 

Two students from San Diego State University and Grossmont College also got in on the evening of fun, dressed in their best to listen to the symphony. It became a special date night for the couple who both previously played in their high school band and were happy to purchase accessibly priced tickets to see the San Diego Symphony. 

Philip Wong, a first-year student UC San Diego marine biology student, came with a group of friends to enjoy the performance from the lawn. He described the amphitheater as awe-inspiring. “I’m kind of a classical music nerd and I really like some of the pieces they are playing, like Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto,” said Wong. “I’ve never really gotten to attend a lot of orchestra concerts and this is going to be my first one in a long while." 

Bringing Blacktronika from the class to the community 

On Oct. 29, UC San Diego Assistant Teaching Professor of Music King Britt transformed his popular course “Blacktronika: Afrofuturism in Electronic Music” into an in-person festival. 

The all-day “Blacktronika: Where I Stand” event showcased performances from six innovative musical groups, such as the Irreversible Entanglements, Chimurenga Renaissance, Xenia Rubinos and Georgia Anne Muldrow. The lineup also included a live performance from Britt and composer, drummer and MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient Tyshawn Sorey.

Further, the festival debuted the multicultural supergroup 5hz. The group boasts a multitude of Triton talent, with members includes four music department graduate students—Kevin Green, David Aguila, Jonny Stallings Cárdenas, Pablo Dodero—and alumni Kathryn Schulmeister.

Musicians played among the dancing crowd at Blacktronika. 
Musicians played among the dancing crowd at the Blacktronika festival. 

The crowd was filled with guests of all ages enjoying music from their seats, dancing along in the crowd and even taking in the electronic sounds while lounging on the lawn. 

Britt described the journey of the development of Blacktronika from a virtual class to a daylong festival as “truly a blessing.” The online course, which launched right as the pandemic caused a worldwide lockdown, is dedicated to exploring the contributions that Black artists have made to electronic music. 

“This is the first class of its kind to continuously honor the pioneers of color who have helped to advance electronic music to where it is now and to have them all in class as guests,” explained Britt, who is also an accomplished DJ and producer. “From Dub to Chicago House to Detroit Techno and beyond, it's important to show the socio-political experiences that went into the creation of these genres and its major influences globally.” 

Tyshawn Sorey and King Britt pictured on stage.
Tyshawn Sorey and King Britt pictured on stage.

Alongside continuing the momentum of Blacktronika’s online class, the festival also built upon the energy of Blacktronika’s popular “club experiences” hosted on campus. 

“We called the festival ‘Where I Stand’ to bring together many cultural backgrounds, to unite under the power of true intention in carrying the sonic and political lineage of our ancestors,” explained Britt. “Each act creates music with a focus and urgency to create positive change as they perform globally. This is a historic day bringing them all together on one stage. Years from now many researchers, educators and musicologists will look back at this dynamic lineup.”

Arts for all: From a rock concert to a Día de los Muertos commemoration

Colleen Kollar Smith, the inaugural executive director of the Campus Performances and Events Office, has been at the forefront of curating the new amphitheater’s programming.

“The best part of it is that I think everything that was envisioned and dreamed of is coming into fruition and becoming a reality,” shared Kollar Smith about the venue’s debut. “It really is becoming a gathering space and a place where people can connect and build community through the arts.”

Death Cab for Cutie are pictured performing to a sold-out crowd at the amphitheater.
Death Cab for Cutie performed a sold-out concert on Oct. 22.

A total of seven programs ushered in the campus’s new amphitheater, offering audiences of all backgrounds various ways to enjoy, explore and interact with the venue. Among the most highly anticipated events was the Oct. 22 performance from alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie. 

Guests filled the venue for the sold-out Death Cab concert, ranging from local fans from across the city to campus community members who registered for free tickets to enjoy the show from the lawn. Toward the end of the set, lead singer Ben Gibbard went out to the crowd to greet and hug guests singing along to the music. 

The following day, the amphitheater hosted a free Community Fest and Film Night from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Guests enjoyed a giant puppet parade presented by La Jolla Playhouse and Animal Cracker Conspiracy, salsa lessons, performances by the Young Lions Jazz Ensemble, a screening of the 1984 film "Purple Rain” and more.

The Hasta la Muerte event combined storytelling with music, dance, poetry and activism. 
The Hasta la Muerte event combined storytelling with music, dance, poetry and activism. 

The amphitheater also showed off its capacity to serve as a venue for the wide-ranging interests of the larger community, transforming into an immersive space to commemorate Día de los Muertos. As part of UC San Diego’s Latinx History Month celebration, the new production entitled Hasta La Muerte took the stage on Oct. 27. The special celebration—which was rooted in the indigenous Mexican practice of celebrating Life and Death—featured music from Las Cafeteras as well as Grammy-nominated Mexican singer Lupita Infante. 

To learn more about Epstein Family Amphitheater and to stay tuned for future events, please visit the venue’s website.

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