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Review: Savannah Philharmonic opens new season with emotional, engaging program

  • Artistic director and conductor Peter Shannon leads the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra in rehearsal ahead of the Sept. 16 opening night concert. (Photo by Will Peebles/Savannah Morning News)
  • The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra performs its opening night concert on Sept. 16 at the Lucas Theatre. (Photo by Joshua Peacock)
 

Review: Savannah Philharmonic opens new season with emotional, engaging program

19 Sep 2017

The final notes of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade, Op. 35” hung in the Lucas Theatre for what felt like an eternity. The crowd was still and quiet.

The orchestra held its final pose with all eyes on conductor Peter Shannon. The stillness was broken with one word from Shannon, speaking to concertmaster Sinisa Ciric: “Brava.” The sold-out crowd broke into a roaring applause, followed by a standing ovation.

“Those damn Russians and their feelings,” was all I could muster to think. It was a dramatic bookend apropos of the Savannah Philharmonic’s opening night, which traveled through a miscellany of emotional tides.

I’ve remarked in the past about the Philharmonic’s programming choices. Putting together a cohesive, entertaining and engaging program for an opening night, or for any concert, is no easy task. But each year, Shannon and company find the right balance of material.

Within seconds of taking the rostrum, Shannon signaled the percussion section, which triggered our national anthem. I don’t remember this happening last year, and it was not in the program. Shannon asked the crowd to sing, which we did.

It was a beautiful moment of unity that brought the crowd into a oneness with the orchestra. Whether the desire for unity was intentional or not, from then on, the crowd seemed completely engaged with the orchestra. Perhaps this is why the end was so powerful. We took a journey with the musicians. We were not just spectators, but also participants. In an extremely polarizing time in our country, it is healthy to have reminders of who we are at our core: a united people. So began the night’s odyssey.

Into the program, the Philharmonic opened with the overture to “Prodana nevesta” (The Bartered Bride) by Bedrich Smetana. This is a dramatic, complicated piece of music, which allows plenty of space for the string section to shine. It’s also a fast piece of music — punk rock fast. Shannon set a strong pace, pushing his strings to show off. They responded in kind.

From Smetana, the father of Czech music, we moved to one of the most famous names in classical music. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 was an elegant intermediate that also primed the audience for the finale by drawing a nice contrast between the more reserved German classical music and the more emotive Russian classical music.

Featuring world-renowned pianist Margaret Singer, this was a showcase of master musicians at work. Singer’s motherly touch was delicate in the conversation with the ensemble. But, when required, she would take command of the music with powerful bravado. Without the aid of sheet music, Singer soared through the piece with such ease, it felt as if anyone could do it. Clearly, though, Singer has spent a lot of time with this music.

As is so often true of many things in life, when you view a finished product, especially in the case of art, it is hard to see what exactly has gone into the making of that product. To be able to handle Mozart with the ease Singer displayed requires years of training and practice. I dare say a lifetime. To experience a master at work is remarkable.

There were several aspects of the Savannah Philharmonic’s performance of “Scheherazade” that stood out. The music itself has dramatic shifts throughout, which require a delicate touch in the pacing and the ensemble’s delivery. Shannon’s enthusiasm, which seems hard to contain at times, was measured so adequately in this performance, the journey through each movement painted a beautiful portrait in all the colors and timbres a good orchestra can create. Based on “The Arabian Nights” tales, this is an epic musical story from beginning to end, and the Savannah Philharmonic did it justice.

At the center of the story is the solo violin, helmed by Ciric. As the orchestra rose and fell, Ciric would echo the main themes throughout the movements, handling each with the temerity of the heroes the composer set out to canonize. Ciric’s performance was, simply put, exceptional.

Accenting the concertmaster’s story were shining moments from guest principal cellist Fred Gratta, who traded a wonderful conversation with Ciric throughout the movements, as well as principal flutist Jeana Melilli, principal oboist Andre Jay Ripley and principal bassoonist Sandra Nikolajevs.

A sold-out crowd and a standing ovation are clearly marks of success, and for the Savannah Philharmonic’s opening night, both were well deserved.

Special thanks to violinist Ricardo Ochoa for his red socks. It was nice to see a splash of color in the sea of black tuxedos and dresses. It was the proverbial cherry on the cake.

LEARN MORE

See the Savannah Philharmonic’s schedule and order tickets at savannahphilharmonic.org.

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