Over a decade ago, a handful of Savannahians and one Irishman planted the seeds of a new orchestra in Savannah from the remains of another era.

Through the past 10 years, the Savannah Philharmonic has been nurtured by that core group and experienced consistent growth, budding into the city’s premier symphonic showcase.

The Philharmonic has grown from one concert in 2008 to 16 in the 2017-18 season. Over 4,000 musicians have played with the orchestra and over 5,000 choristers have performed. They’ve grown from a single staff member to over eight full-time and part-time employees. They’ve moved from 38 annual donors to over 400 contributors, and all without carrying any operational debt.

From sold-out concerts of symphonic staples, collaborations with world-renowned soloists and world premieres of original works, the Savannah Philharmonic has become a firmly planted Savannah institution ripe for a new decade of growth.

 

In the beginning

Peter Shannon — the Irishman in question — was working in Germany in 2006 when he was asked to come to Savannah and conduct a rehearsal for the Savannah Choral Society, the leftover ensemble from the defunct Savannah Orchestra. Against other potential conductors, Shannon was hired that fall with the intention of forming a full orchestra from the choir — a rarity in the symphonic world, where a chorus is typically added to a fully formed symphony.

Along with board members Melissa Emery, David Frothingham, Dick Platt and Ken Carter, the group set out to re-imagine an orchestra in Savannah. They began reviving the donor base that contributed to the former symphony.

“In particular, Melissa Emery, a philanthropist, didn’t want to see the chorus go down and had a bit of a vision, to see if we got a conductor in and kept it ticking, maybe this could be the catalyst for a symphony to come back,” Shannon said. “If he’s good, maybe people will come to the concerts. Maybe that will be a vehicle.

“When they communicated that to me, because I was only working as an orchestral conductor in Germany, I was sure I didn’t want to come and conduct a chorus, even if it was going to be a professional chorus. I knew symphonic music had to be part of it. They shared that vision, fairly clearly, even though there wasn’t a road map to get there.”

In 2009, the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus debuted with a production of “The Merry Widow.” Over the next year, they began building the budget one piece at a time so further expansion would be possible.

Solid financial foundation

The hiring of David Pratt as executive director in 2010 set the stage for a period of tremendous financial growth for the young orchestra. Pratt left in 2014 for a position with the Santa Barbara Symphony, but is set to return to the city after being recently named the new executive director for the Savannah Music Festival.

Pratt’s contributions as executive director of the Philharmonic helped lay the monetary groundwork for the orchestra to grow. In 2013, the operating budget surpassed $1 million.

“[Pratt] played a huge role in setting that financial foundation for the organization to grow in the first generation,” executive director Terri O’Neil said. "He was instrumental in that. To have David Pratt back on the music scene is exciting.”

 

“We slipped a couple of times,” Shannon said of the early years. “Our first massive success was taking David Pratt, who’s just been elected director of the music festival. No surprise there. He was an incredible director for the Savannah Philharmonic. Very outgoing, lovable guy, knows his stuff, very organized, very together. That was the next mammoth jump after my arrival.”

“A really good thing that happened was David Pratt,” tenured violinist Ricardo Ochoa said. “I was sad to see him go and now he’s back! It’s a terrific thing. David Pratt being here is going to affect everyone for the better, in general. That guy is terrific. He’s single-handedly responsible for putting that orchestra in the right place, financially. I think it’s going to get better and better.”

Looking for new growth

The next major step for the organization was the staging of a full opera, which showed the donor base that Shannon’s vision for the future was solid.

“We put on ‘La Traviata’ with a full orchestra,” Shannon said. “After that, the money really started coming in. That’s where the trust was re-established [with the donors]. It was a landmark event for the Philharmonic.”

In 2016, O’Neil was hired and along with Shannon and the organization’s board, the future of the Philharmonic will likely mirror the past decade of growth as they push into a new era.

“Our job, Peter and mine together, is to set us up for the next decade,” O’Neil said. “We’re 10 years in, very successful. We’re selling out concerts. With every organization, as you grow, if you want to be successful, you need to be looking forward. We feel like we’re coming into our next generation of board, staff, musicians, audience and our initiatives are proving that we’re set up very nicely for the next generation.”

While O’Neil handles the business side of the nonprofit, Shannon focuses on the artistic product, ensuring what they are selling to the public is solid each and every time it’s put on the stage.

“To see an orchestra succeed is a very difficult thing,” Ochoa said. “Everywhere, orchestras are closing down. Several things happened that I was very happy about. Peter has done tremendous, bringing the passion to not only the orchestra, but the contributors. He’s activated that energy. You have a great team of musicians, too. That’s the responsibility of Peter. We’re all very loyal now.”

 

Milestone anniversary

The 10th anniversary season for the Savannah Philharmonic is as bold as the ensemble’s beginning. A full range of concerts beginning in September and running through May will highlight the range and depth of Savannah’s orchestra.

The season’s opening night looks back at the last 10 years and the first concert they performed. They end the season with an ambitious highlight of "Mahler’s Symphony No. 2," a gargantuan piece of music. In between, the symphony will hit the masters of classical music, Broadway and pops, as well as a very special concert chosen by the orchestra itself.

For the first time, they will team up with the Savannah Music Festival in April for a special "Rhapsody in Blue" and "The Firebird Suite" concert. Their educational outreach efforts will also pepper the upcoming year, as they continue to embed themselves into the Savannah community.

“People say that concert was better than the last one and this is the best one yet,” Shannon said. “It’s nice they say that, but it’s not necessarily true. I know the artistic product is getting better. I am a custodian of that. I see it getting better all the time.

"The real road map is the ebb and flow of the concerts and making sure the continuum of the Philharmonic and the concerts they do season to season is as good as the last. Somebody comes up to you and says, 'You can’t beat that one; that’s a milestone set for you.'

“The difficulty for me and the organization artistically is to keep that niveau. There will always be, if you have a great soloist and a great night in the orchestra, it will peak. It can’t fall too far from that peak. It always has to be kept up there. That’s the long, slow distance. It’s very difficult to maintain.

"I think you can only do that with a certain amount of experience, but knowing the orchestra and the audience, how to motivate the orchestra, is a big part of my job.”