The Savannah Philharmonic will present an ambitious showcase of Baroque orchestral music featuring work from the titans of the era in its 10th concert of the 2017-18 season on Jan. 27 at the Lucas Theatre.
Following the Renaissance, 17th-century Europe was ripe with innovation and progress. Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal and Isaac Newton were all part of the scientific revolution of the time that transformed our understanding of the world.
In conjunction, music and art were also experiencing a revolution. The Baroque era for music gave us the founding principles of music tonality - the set of rules, or suggestions, that still govern most of the music made today. Of the many giants of musical innovation came Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Pachelbel, Antonio Vivaldi and George Handel, the featured composers in the Savannah Philharmonic's "Royal Baroque" concert.
The Philharmonic will open the night with the beautiful Pachelbel's "Canon in D," followed by Vivaldi's "Piccolo Concerto in A minor" featuring the ensemble's principal flutist Jeana Melilli. Handel's "Water Music" will begin the evening's highlight, followed by Bach's "Suite No. 3 in D major." The concert will be bookended by a showcase of the brass section playing Handel's "Royal Fireworks Music."
Savannah Philharmonic artistic director and conductor Peter Shannon pieced together the programming with emphasis on Handel's "Water Music" and "Royal Fireworks Music," the "pillars of the concert," as he states. Both pieces were composed for kings.
According to the first British daily newspaper, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 17, 1717, King George I boarded a royal barge at Whitehall Palace for trip up to Chelsea. Another barge containing about 50 musicians followed up the River Thames playing "Water Music." The king enjoyed it so much, he asked for it to be repeated on his trip back. "Royal Fireworks" was composed for King George II to be played for fireworks in London's Green Park on April 27, 1749, in celebration of the end of the War of Austrian Succession.
"What I like about this program, for me the orchestra is super energetic and high-octane," Shannon said. "You don't typically associate Baroque with that, but I do. It's huge energy. A lot of romantic music, certainly Brahms - maybe not so much Schumann and Schubert - always has to have somewhat of a reserved quality about it. Mozart invariably needs to be beautiful. Beethoven can be gnarly and ugly.
"But Baroque is also very visceral and very direct. It can also be, really, prompted from a very direct approach. That's the way we're going about this concert. As Baroque as the concert is, and as old as the repertoire is, it's probably one of our most poppy concerts. It's rock 'n' roll."
The orchestra makeup will shift slightly for the concert. Baroque music requires more brass than string instruments, and so the Philharmonic will expand the brass section, who will play while standing instead of sitting, in the tradition of the day. The percussion section will also expand for this concert, with a larger timpani section being featured heavily at times.
Later Baroque music, like that of this program, was some of the first Western orchestral music and thus the notation used is more sparse compared with Romantic or modern compositions. As symphonic music developed and composers began to write more complicated music, the notation used in the sheet music was compounded. Shannon approaches the skeleton of a Baroque score as an opportunity, instead of an obstacle.
"The wonderful thing about Baroque music is that it doesn't specify an articulation, it doesn't a specify a dynamic, it doesn't specify phrases and a lot of the times, it doesn't specify an instrumentation," Shannon said. "For people who struggle with performance practice [implied notes instead of written ones], it's a nightmare. For people that don't, it's kind of a blessing. It's carte blanche to make music, provided you do it within the restraints of performance practice of the era.
"I suppose the biggest challenge is to have a sense of aesthetic and what was required at the time and how it was played at the time and what was the standard, requires a lot of research," Shannon continued. "It requires a lot of practice. For me, the biggest challenge, as it always is, is to keep the motivation of the musicians going. Making sure that we respect the practice performance of the era.
"Some of them, like concertmaster Sinisa Ciric and even all the front sections of the orchestra - the leaders of the orchestra - have very strong backgrounds in Baroque music. That helps me enormously. They already helped me by doing it right. The challenge is making sure they all articulate and move the same way."
In preparation for the concert, the work done by Shannon and the ensemble, especially with a showcase of Baroque music, is far more intense than it might seem. Not only does Shannon have to shape the overall feel of the performance, paying mind to tempo, pace and volume, but also the orchestra's individual voicing of the instruments must be on par with each other, and it has to happen in just four short rehearsals.
"They are very ambitious and have a lot of pride in what they do," Shannon said of his ensemble. "None of them come in to wing it. They also know that I am a fair, but hard taskmaster. We don't finish an hour early to give everyone a warm fuzzy feeling. We do what we have to do to get it right on stage. That's important for the musicians, too."
IF YOU GO
What: Savannah Philharmonic "Royal Baroque"
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.