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Food for the soul
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It’s been several years now since Savannah bid farewell to its beloved but financially challenged Symphony Orchestra. In the time that has passed, there have been fewer classical music concerts in town, but to the pleasant surprise of most everyone you’ll ask, symphonic concerts continue to take place in Savannah.

Just not by our very own Symphony.

The annual city-sponsored concert in Forsyth Park is easily Savannah’s most eagerly anticipated classical music event. This outdoor recital under the stars has come to be known as The Picnic In The Park, due to the longstanding tradition of folks bringing food and drink with them.

In fact, it would foolish to dismiss the convivial nature of this annual concert. The lure of relaxing music, good food, libations, a family-friendly environment, and (hopefully) nice weather make this an outing that all strata of local society finds pretty hard to pass up.

Lara Hoffman, marketing coordinator for the City’s Cultural Affairs Department takes pride in the wide-ranging appeal of this event, and says that when the time came for the Savannah Symphony to disband, there was never serious consideration given to ending this tradition.

“I don’t believe we ever really thought about not doing it,” she says.

“We weren’t quite sure what form it was going to take without our own symphony, but there was a group of musicians who were dedicated to preserving it, and when they approached us about taking the reins, we immediately agreed. They’ve done a great job since then of putting it all together, and everyone loves the job they’re doing.”

This year’s effort is led once more by Picnic In The Park Orchestra Coordinator Carl Polk, a former member of the Savannah Symphony who helped spearhead the drive to continue on.

Hoffman says that while the city covers the cost of staging the event, and allows the park to be used, they have no hand in the artistic direction.

“The city sponsors it but they leave the program up to the experts (laughs)! The truth is that it could be really tricky because we don’t have a functioning symphony any more, but Carl and the other main players do a great job of gathering other musicians from all over the area.”

This year – as in the past – the group in question is an amalgam of players brought in from several regional orchestras, from Augusta, Ga. to Hilton Head, S.C., and beyond. They also require the services of a guest conductor, and this time around, that role will be filled by Neil Casey, conductor of the Statesboro-Georgia Southern Symphony and Assistant Conductor of the Augusta Symphony.

Casey is also on staff at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and teaches at the Conductor’s Institute. He travels extensively and is in great demand as a guest conductor. For this particular show, he’ll be leading almost 50 musicians through pieces by Strauss, Bizet, Tchaikovsky, Goodwin, Offenbach, Andrew Lloyd Webber and others.

As in years past, while the main event starts at 7:30 p.m., the live music actually begins much earlier in the day with performances by the Skylight Jazz Band, the Savannah Arts Academy Orchestra and Combined Choir, the Atlantic Chamber Orchestra, and the Armstrong Atlantic Youth Orchestra.

“There’s so much more going on that day than just the main orchestra,” says Hoffman. “Including the contest for best picnic setup.” Prizes for the winners in this eagerly anticipated event were donated by many area businesses, and Hoffman says they’re some of the best and most valuable ever offered.

While in the past these shows have drawn crowds as large as 5,000, organizers are expecting a bump in attendance.

“This year because of scheduling conflicts we chose to do this on a Saturday instead of a Sunday” explains Hoffman. “We’re hoping that there will be even more people who are able to come.”

She says that while each year there are a handful of noise-related complaints from those living near the park, the response is overwhelmingly positive.

“People come from all around for this. They plan weekend trips and stay in hotels and go shopping. It’s great for Savannah’s economy and for our spirit as well. I know it may sound cheesy, but the sense of community this creates is really beautiful to me.”

Picnic in the Park’s musical program begins at 4 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 8, with the main performance starting at 7:30 p.m. Picnic registration is from 4-5:30 p.m. with final judging at 5:30 p.m.