Admitting to hearing loss in 1801, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote in a letter that he would “seize fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely” and this fury can be felt from the first three chords — a dagger into these emotions that even casual classical music fans could immediately recognize.
Neither fury nor rage filled the sold-out Lucas Theatre on Sept. 22 as the Savannah Philharmonic opened Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, much like they did 10 years before, but to this crowd those three daggers exclaimed fanfare and glee — signaling “your” Philharmonic, not into a time of sorrow and melancholy, but a continued era of joy and jubilance.
Beethoven’s Fifth didn’t come until after the intermission of the show, so its impact was just an addition to the exuberance already on exhibition during Saturday evening’s "Opening Night: Fire & Spirit" concert, which began the latest, and 10th anniversary, season for the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.
Coming first before Beethoven was a world premiere special for the Savannah crowd, a specially curated composition from Richard Sortomme aptly titled “Ten.” Prior to the performance, Sortomme broke down the piece, mentioning that in its opening moments, the audience would notice an exclamation from the orchestra, saying “Yes!” and “the Savannah Philharmonic is here to stay!”
Sortomme was not exaggerating. “Ten” exclaimed both statements and more, not only heralding the Philharmonic in this second decade of prominence in the city, but also sharing a love and affection for the history and decadence of Savannah. The piece opened with fanfare, but shifted more sensually into a sweeping ballad — echoing the haunting and alluring nature of Savannah’s streets, gazed upon through Spanish moss hanging over dimmed Victorian street lamps.
A shift back to the more fanciful and bustling seemed to represent the movement and flow of a pre-1900s city filled with the scurrying steps of commerce and prosperity, signaled through the string and woodwind melody. To close, the brass section brings you to attention as the timpani swells and the grand gesture to the Hostess City is given its due completion.
The enjoyment from “Ten” was its transportation — not into a new world — but the familiar city of Savannah and the ability to sweep you through the historic streets with the accompaniment of the Philharmonic.
The performance stuck with fantasy, shifting from original composition to the work of Beethoven with “Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra" in C minor, Op. 80 “Choral Fantasy,” which included a special performance by Quynh Shannon on the piano. Performed by Beethoven in Vienna in 1808, the introductory piano is presumed to have been improvised by the composer himself, but its elegant violence sets the tone for the playful responses of the rest of the orchestra before climaxing into a choral herald that takes the breath away. Shannon's touch on the piano was all-consuming, pulling you deeply into its grasp before releasing you into the fantasy of the orchestra and chorus' pronounced entrance into the arrangement.
There isn’t much to say today about the masterful nature of Beethoven’s Fifth, and it would be difficult to speak of how it sounded in Savannah 10 years ago, but this latest performance carried the skill and emotion one would expect when anticipating one of classical music’s most known arrangements. The beginning is so renowned that you tend to forget the energy and play of the rest of the piece, losing the ferocity of that first movement and shifting around to evoke an all-encompassing experience, rather than just selling it as watching a performance.
That same sentiment could be said about the Savannah Philharmonic, as “Fire & Spirit” wasn’t as much a performance as it was a collective bow for everyone in attendance this night and every night since for the past 10 years, cementing again that Savannah features a world-class philharmonic orchestra that doesn’t expect to be bent or crushed any time soon.
Read more about the Philharmonic's 10th season here. Their next performance, the "Brass on High" Larsen Musician Spotlight Series featuring the Philharmonic's brass section, is at 5 p.m. Sept. 30 at Lutheran Church of the Ascension. Find details here.