Roaring into a new decade of life, the Savannah Philharmonic will open its 10th season with a bit of fire, and a lot of spirit.
Even before the orchestra’s inception, artistic director and conductor Peter Shannon took bold steps in securing a future for the Philharmonic in Savannah. He moved from Europe to Savannah before the ensemble existed with the intent of creating one when there was only a chorus — the remnants of a defunct Savannah Symphony Orchestra.
With the support of philanthropic Savannahians, Shannon opened his life in Savannah with a drive to create a true Savannah orchestra. They’ve spent a decade building a donor base. They’ve grown incrementally over the years. Former executive director David Pratt was a big help, as is current executive director Terri O’Neil, too.
Musicians like violinist Ricardo Ochoa, oboist Andrew Ripley and others were part of the first orchestra to play as the Savannah Philharmonic, bringing the necessary passion Shannon needed to sculpt something new out of ashes.
Bold statements are Shannon’s style. Early on, he staged a full production of the opera “La Traviata” at a then ridiculous cost of $100,000. It was a gamble, but it paid off as their donor base grew after that show. He’s pushed the boundaries of the orchestra, forcing them to grow into a regionally recognized force.
The Savannah Philharmonic will revisit the first concert they staged in 2008 to open the 2018-19 season. The "Fire & Spirit" opening night will feature Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 80 “Choral Fantasy,” featuring Shannon’s wife Quynh Shannon on piano. The score also highlights the Savannah Philharmonic Chorus and will be the premiere of new Chorusmaster Matt Caine.
They will close the night with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, perhaps the most recognizable and popular piece of classical music.
“I can't think of a better way to open our historic 10th season than with Beethoven's epic Fifth Symphony,” Shannon said. “I find it particularly fulfilling because we just finished our ninth season with Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. The Fifth Symphony is dramatic in the extreme, but has moments of serene beauty and pure joy as well. It truly is the symphony that never wants to end, with Beethoven pushing all the parameters to achieve an incredibly exciting finish.”
Just as they did in 2016, the Philharmonic will open the night with the world premiere of a commissioned piece of music. Composer Richard Sortomme has written a new composition aptly titled “Ten,” to celebrate the season.
The orchestra's brave step into contemporary compositions isn’t new. To open the 2016 season, the Philharmonic premiered a violin concerto by Sortomme. But Shannon is aware of what the audience might think about contemporary symphonic music, and so he dutifully pairs it with grander standards to create a bit of a honey trap.
“There’s not a huge contemporary audience in Savannah,” Shannon said. “When we do stuff that’s a little bit difficult or that requires a certain amount of concentration more so than anything else, we like to do that in tandem with a piece that is very popular. A lot of it, too, is, again, these kind of ways to bring people here.
“People will come to hear a Tchaikovsky violin concerto or a Brahms symphony, then you stick this piece of contemporary music that they think they might not enjoy — and this piece for example that Ricky has written, is something that people might say [when the see it announced] 'Oh, I can do without that.' But it’s actually a fantastic piece.”
Sortomme, a Juilliard School graduate, is an awarding-winning composer whose original work has premiered with the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, two of the best orchestras in the U.S.
Looking to the next several months of concerts, the Savannah Philharmonic is not backing off the gas pedal. From "Masters of Baroque," Picnic in the Park, "Best of Broadway" and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 to a co-production with the Savannah Music Festival and finally, Shannon conducting Mahler, the next eight months are filled with bold statements, solidifying the Philharmonic as Savannah’s orchestra.
“The difficulty for me and the organization artistically is to keep that niveau,” Shannon said. “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.”
“To see an orchestra succeed is a very difficult thing,” Ochoa added. “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."