The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO) has faced a difficult 10th season, but have continually risen to the challenge of what laid in front of them.
In their final concert of the 2018-19 season, Savannah’s symphony will once again be met with another mountain to climb, one that will test the strength and composer of the entire orchestra and chorus.
In November, founding Artistic Director and Conductor Peter Shannon announced he would be leaving his post at the end of the season. Over the last decade, Shannon helped build the orchestra from the remains of the Savannah Symphonic Orchestra.
In February, they took on the daunting task of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in the Musicians’ Choice concert. The night was a resounding hit that proved their might as a musical ensemble. This final concert on May 4 was originally billed as Shannon’s swan song; “Shannon does Mahler.” But in March, Shannon resigned his post leaving two concerts in the season without a conductor.
“I think a lot of credit (is due) to Peter Shannon,” retired conductor John Canarina said. “He built the orchestra and we’ll miss him. That performance of the Shostakovich 10th was so good — it would have been good in any place, if it had been Boston, New York or Berlin. Didn’t have to make any allowances.”
Two new candidates were added to the roster of eight already in place for season 11. Keitaro Harada led the SPO in their co-production with the Savannah Music Festival in early April.
For the May 4 concert, the SPO got very lucky when Joseph Young agreed to lead the orchestra in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor “Resurrection.”
Young is nearly the perfect candidate to handle the job. He was born in Virginia, but grew up just outside of Charleston, spending most of his life in South Carolina. He studied music at the University of South Carolina and served as an assistant conductor to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, visiting Savannah several times for concerts during the Savannah Music Festival. He has been billed as “one of the most gifted conductors of his generation.”
He led the ASO in over 50 concerts and helmed the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. Young has also appeared with the Saint Louis Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic, Colorado Symphony, Charleston Symphony, Phoenix Symphony, Spoleto Festival Orchestra and Nashville Symphony.
When search committee chairman Scott Lauretti sent his criteria for the field of conductors to be considered to replace Shannon, he asked advisor Henry Fogel for one thing very specifically, diversity.
“I had a strong desire to have women candidates and people from all different ethnic representations,” Lauretti told the Savannah Morning News earlier this year. “Our community is a diverse community and I wanted our candidates to reflect that diversity. That was top of the list of priorities. And we wanted to have great art. We need someone who is super adapt at making the musicians the best they can possibly be.”
Fogel offered the position to three Africian-American conductors, but all turned it down. Young represents that missed demographic, furthering Lauretti’s desire to have equal representation from all ethnicities and genders.
“A lot of change is happening,” Young said of diversity in the symphonic world. “It takes a search committee like in Savannah, people higher up to think about those things, to make sure the future doesn’t look like the past.”
A Young man
“I think Mahler, he has this kind of mystic vision in all of his pieces,” Young said.
When he was 16, Young would stand in his bedroom at night with headphones on guest conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while they performed Mahler’s No. 2 or Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
“I didn’t know the score,” Young recalled. “I didn’t know if I was doing it right but those were the kind of big sounds I had. Mahler two is one of those pinnacle pieces of my development that I’ve always wanted to tackle, because it has such a programmatic message throughout it. It can be centered around religion; it can be centered around other people’s personal belief of transcendence. For me, that journey he puts you through is epic.”
Although he’s assisted in conducting this piece before, Young has never lead Mahler’s No. 2 himself.
“For me, Mahler put the whole human experience in his music,” Young said. “I think throughout the piece, you’re able to grasp joy. You’re able to grasp loss. You’re able to grasp rebirth. All of those are in his music. It’s not about interpretation. Everything is meticulously put into the music for everyone to experience, for the musicians to experience.”
Mahler has not always been so well respected. His conducting was praised during the peak of his career in the 1800s, but his compositions were never received well by critics or audiences. In the mid-20th century it was another famous conductor and composer who helped bring the Austrian’s name to the general public.
At the height of his television popularity, Leonard Bernstein threw a Mahler festival. At the time, as Canarina recalls, there were only a handful of conductors who staged Mahler.
“When I was growing up, performances of Mahler were few and far between,” Canarina recalled. “Two conductors regularly programmed Mahler: Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulos.”
Canarina, who was an assistant conductor to Bernstein and later led the Jacksonville Symphony for seven years, has helmed Mahler’s No. 2 once before.
“It requires an extremely large orchestra,” Canarina said.” Most orchestras have three or four trumpet players. This calls for eight. You quadruple every woodwind, except clarinets. You need a lot of strings and the chorus.
“Somehow Mahler did catch on,” Canarina continued. “This is a very inspiring kind of piece. It’s called the 'Resurrection.' It has nothing to do with the resurrection of Christ. It’s the resurrection of man.”
Mahler’s second symphony is a long, 80-plus minute existential gargantuan of the Romantic period. The first movement, which clocks in around 24 minutes, was written and first performed as a stand-alone piece in 1888. He had finished the other four movements by 1894, but had not figured out their order just yet. It’s a complex symphony with many parts that build from very quiet moments to climaxes that showcase the power of an ensemble and a chorus.
Mahler considered pushing the chorus to the fourth movement but hesitated, because he felt he was imitating Beethoven’s Ninth. But at the funeral of Hans Von Bulow, when the chorus entered at the end, he was clear on the emotional power of holding off the voices until the time was right — creating in his own symphony one of the most powerful moments in the last 15 minutes.
“The first chorus entrance is one of the most beautiful, mind blowing kind of moments Mahler put together,” Young said. “For me, that hymn ending is so revolutionary. He has the chorus still sitting, or at least I am going to have the chorus still sitting. It’s the statement we’ve all been waiting for throughout the whole piece. It’s like the clouds separate and this heavenly chorus appears. For me, Mahler is a transcendent composer and that moment is where he captures me.”
Some conductors will open a performance of this concert with an overture, perform the first two movements, which register at around 30 minutes on their own, and then take an intermission — as Canarina did.
Young is not most conductors.
“I don’t think this piece needs an intermission,” Young said. “For me, it’s a emotional journey that needs you to sit through the whole thing. We have the mezzo and soprano, we all come in after the first movement; it’s a straight shot to creating that kind of emotional journey in one sitting.”
Young is interviewing for the permanent position of artistic director and conductor, but he is also interviewing Savannah. In January, he was named the Berkeley Symphony’s new music director, a three-year contract that begins with the 2019-20 season.
“For me, I want to see how much they embrace the music-making process,” Young said. “It is Mahler two, but it’s also a powerful journey for us as musicians to experience. Figuring out how the orchestra is going to experience that.
“For me, conducting is like being a chamber musician. Standing in front of a large group of members who are dedicated to the passion and to the joy of music making. For me, I want to experience that with the Savannah Philharmonic, which I’ve heard a lot great things about.”