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Cue the orchestra
Peter Shannon and the Savannah Philharmonic open a new season
Consumed by his work. - photo by Bill DeYoung


There’s a new sheriff in town, but he’s packing a skinny little baton instead of a six-shooter. With the apparent demise of the Savannah Orchestra, and its chamber-music offshoot the Savannah Sinfonietta, the big man at the podium is Savannah Philharmonic conductor Peter Shannon.

Shannon was hired two years ago by the Savannah Choral Society, and he came with impeccable credentials: Ten years conducting the Collegium Musicum Orchestra in Heidelberg, Germany, after years of study at the Franz Liszt Hochschule fur Music, one of only two German schools which hold the title of “elite university.”

The native Irishman came to Savannah brimming with enthusiasm and new ideas about organization, fundraising, outreach, presentation – and, most especially, about music. “Passion” is a word he uses often.

As the Philharmonic’s Artistic Director, he not only chooses the programs for each concert, he is responsible for hiring the very best musicians (many of the players in the Philharmonic come from Charleston, Atlanta and other up-the-road metro areas, just as they did for Savannah’s previous classical aggregate).

Friday’s season-opener at the Lucas Theatre spotlights Copland’s Fanfare For the Common Man, as well as Barber’s Adagio For Strings, a collection of Sousa marches and other “patriotic” selections (note that the date is Sept. 11). There’ll be about 55 musicians in the orchestra, along with a good chunk of the chorus on some of the pieces.

Shannon, 40, admits it’s been something of a bumpy ride so far. Although attendance is up, helped by positive reviews for his high-energy approach to classical music, certain local and regional musicians – veterans of the Savannah Orchestra – remain wary of him, and are hesitant to play with the Philharmonic out of loyalty to the old guard.

There’s been a smattering of bad blood between the sides – Shannon says he’s offered the olive branch several times – and when everything is settled, Savannah’s classical music environment can only get healthier.

After all, the music is the only thing that really matters.

Two years in, the Philharmonic is a relatively new orchestra. Is it still an uphill climb?

 Peter Shannon: Definitely, no doubt about it. You would imagine it’s very fertile earth, the situation we’re in, because there is no orchestra. It’s not like we’re in Washington or London where we’re competing with 15 different orchestras. But I think the fertile earth is burned earth, too, because so many people have been disappointed, and they’re wary about a new symphony orchestra coming back. In fact, many of the big philanthropists in town have made no bones about it. They’ve screwed this thing up so many times, and so many other groups trying to do something have screwed up, too. So it’s “What’s different with you?”

How do you change that?

Peter Shannon: Well, you do it differently. I think we have a different road map, a different modus operandi. And I’ve done this before, that’s the good thing. You just have to be very creative and find ways to involve the community in the orchestra, to make it work. And to communicate to the orchestra the import of their role in all this. Music, in Europe, doesn’t have this “aesthetic differentiation” – it’s part of the culture. In America – and in Savannah at the moment – it’s not. People go to the opera, or to the symphony, just to be part of the crowd. As they do in a lot of places in America. They don’t go like they were going to an Elton John concert: “Oh my God, I can’t wait to hear the third movement of Brahms’ second symphony.” They just go and hope that they’re going to enjoy it.

That’s got to be frustrating.

Peter Shannon: It is and it isn’t, because you’ve got people there that are just like open books. You can write whatever you want on them. It’s like jumping into a swimming pool when there’s no one else around. You get to make the waves.

God knows the Americans want to be knocked off their feet. They’re very emotional people, and they’re very honest in their emotions, which is very refreshing after coming from Germany, I can tell you.

If the concert doesn’t have the emotion that the music demands and should have … I think it’s my job to impart that to the audience. If you’re not knocked out by this, if you don’t hear something in this that gives you goose pimples or makes you shudder, or cry, then you don’t need it. And don’t go.

That’s something I think I’m qualified to do. And I think it’s important, in Savannah, that we really make the musicians responsible for the sound and the communication.

Ultimately, the Savannah Symphony sputtered and failed, like so many regional orchestras. Did that leave a bad taste in people’s mouths?

Peter Shannon: I think (artistic director) Bill Keith did an incredible job of rallying the people that were left in town, getting them together. He was very creative with his programming and did a fantastic job.

I’ve been studying this for 15 years, and doing it for 10, and you’re being tested every concert. It’s not enough just to play the notes. Conducting is an art that really needs to be studied. You need to have somebody standing at the podium who’s as good at his instrument – that’s playing, or channeling the orchestra – as the best player in his orchestra.

In a nutshell, other orchestras have tried, and it’s up to us to see if we can fill the gap.

The chorus still exists. Are you sort of hamstring by that? Are you thinking “Well, I’d like to have a really nice orchestra, but I have to use the chorus too”?

Peter Shannon: Not at all. All my training, up to when I studied orchestral conducting, was in choral music. I was a professional singer in Ireland in the Radio Symphony Choir, which is our chamber choir – 16 solo singers. And I sang as a choirboy in Cork Cathedral.

A lot of conductors are at home with an orchestra, and then not at home with a chorus at all. Because it’s a completely different thing. Or it’s the other way around – they’re very good choral conductors but they don’t have the technique or the understanding of the technique of the individual players. Which you really need to have to be a good orchestral conductor. For me, I really have that luck that I was able to separate them both completely.

In my orchestral conducting, there’s a certain singing style that I’m expecting from the orchestra. In a lot of ways, it’s very, very strongly influenced by my background in singing. And I think that helps the sound.

Will the chorus be part of the Sept. 11 concert?

Peter Shannon: Yes, they’ll be there for “Shenandoah,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and some small pieces like that. But the Verdi Requiem that we’re doing less than a month later, we can’t do that without an incredible chorus.

And it’s important for me to build something here, too. The chorus is a large group of musicians – it’s almost 90 people – and I think of them as my children. That’s what I call them, too. I really feel very responsible for their music-making.

It would be a chore if they weren’t incredibly motivated. That’s all I really need.

Not too long ago, maybe five or six years ago, I realized that all I really wanted to do was make music with people who really wanted to make music. At whatever level.

Do you feel that you’re connecting with the musicians?

Peter Shannon: In any group you’re working with, you have a mental picture of how the sound should be. At least I do. And I think a lot of conductors do. I know how it has to sound; I can hear it. And your job is to impart that sound with gesture.

A lot of people say conducting the art of suggestion. You’re so intimate with your musicians that vocal language becomes unnecessary, or even a barrier. The only thing that works is this {he raises his hands in a conducting gesture}.And if you’re able to make music at that level, you’ve arrived. You know you’ve got them. They’re on your hand; they’re on your stick. And I’ve got that feeling with the Savannah Philharmonic.

At the end of the day, do you still feel as if the orchestra’s got something to prove?

Peter Shannon: I think the problem that the musicians had before was this standard repartee of “Savannah’s loaded, it’s got a lot of money, and history needs that symphony orchestra.” Bollocks, as we say in Ireland. If you can’t prove your worth in so many different ways – especially in the financial climate we’re in at the moment – you really shouldn’t succeed.

That's something that worried me in Europe - that so many mediocre orchestras actually have gone on fine. That Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest just goes out the window.

That’s the wonderful thing about America – if it’s not good, hit the road.

Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus: ‘A Celebration of the American Patriot’

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

When: At 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 11

Tickets: $15-$35 ($100 VIP tickets include a contribution to the 200 Club)

Students and children under $12: $5 off

Online: the