Even though the Savannah Symphony Orchestra folded in 2003, demand for live performances of classical music in our area has remained high. Since that time, a number of regional groups have sprung up to help fill that void, such as the Savannah Concert Association, the Savannah Sinfonietta and the Southern Georgia Symphony.
One of the first such offshoots of the defunct SSO was the Savannah Choral Society. Initially an actual part of the SSO, this group re-formed itself in spring of 2004. The choir is made up of around seventy singers, and is now in the midst of its fourth season.
They’ve put on numerous concerts, including operatic works and choral masterworks at the Lucas Theatre, holiday concerts at both Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, American choral works as part of the Savannah Music Festival, and three recitals of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Hilton Head Orchestra.
However, the SCS is eyeing some major changes. Changes which —if successful— should drastically improve not only the quality and frequency of their performances, but the way in which the community perceives them as well.
After an extensive international search for a full-time artistic director which yielded over two dozen applications from both the U.S. and abroad, the group has selected Peter Shannon, an Irishman who has made a name for himself over the past several years as one of the more promising conductors in Europe.
“While taking stock of the group, we realized we had reached a crossroads in its development. We could continue on as we had, with a reasonably successful model — or strive for artistic and organizational growth. We opted for growth,” explains SCS Chairwoman Gretchen Ernest.
“We were looking for someone who could live in and become a part of the Savannah community, and who’d essentially function not only as conductor, but as ‘the face of the Chorus,’” Ernest continues. “Now that Peter has accepted the position, he’ll lead our upcoming Holiday Pops Concert, and soon — assuming a positive outcome from our Immigration and Naturalization Service submission— we’ll be able to hire him as our new full-time leader.”
The Savannah Choral Society’s First Annual Holiday Pops Concert follows in the tradition of the similarly-themed (and perennially-popular) shows put on each Christmas season by the SSO.
“We want to expand our repertoire and our audience as well. That’s the point of this show. Maybe people who might not come to hear Bach’s B Minor Mass might come for some familiar holiday tunes.”
Ernest admits it is a bit of a risk to hold such an event at the 2,600-seat Johnny Mercer Theater, but as that was the location for the SSO’s shows, it only made sense to try and revive the tradition there. Furthermore, she says that several hundred people were turned away from the Choral Society’s last holiday (at the massive Cathedral of St. John The Baptist) concert due to a lack of seating, so the move to a larger venue makes good financial sense.
In addition to the SCS, the bill also includes performances by Savannah Danse Theatre, the Statesboro Youth Chorale, the Savannah Sinfonietta. Well-known local media personality Sonny Dixon will serve as emcee of the event.
Shannon, who is in his early thirties, is an award-winning conductor who has for years led the “Collegium Musicum” orchestra in Heidelberg, Germany and been celebrated for helping them to achieve “their most impressive reputation to date.”
He’s been described by one critic as “a dynamic young conductor with a sublime feeling for tension and release... a conductor of the highest art with a deep sense for rhetoric in the music who knows how to achieve this with the most impressive competence.”
He has guest conducted the Warsaw Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Pécs Symphony Orchestra in Hungary, among others, and toured Norway, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and Poland.
While in Savannah in preparation for his debut with the SCS, I spoke with the intense and passionate maestro about his reasons for accepting this position and for relocating to the States, as well as his specific goals for the society.
Connect Savannah: The Irish press says you “lack nothing in confidence,” and you have a rep for choosing demanding programs, rather than more obvious choices. Do you feel driven to push your own boundaries?
Peter Shannon: I feel there’s good music and bad music. Classical musicians sometimes have a reputation for being snobby, but I don’t feel that a certain genre of music, like jazz or pop, for example, is either good or bad. There are examples of both in all forms.
So, I choose pieces first and foremost because they seem to me to be the right thing for the ensemble at that time. That’s extremely important when you’re dealing with an amateur group. When you’re working with professionals, it really doesn’t matter what you choose. They can play basically anything at any time. It’s crucial to address your own accent on the music, but with an amateur group you have to see where they’re coming from as well. It’s really a case of getting to know people. If you go in demanding something, without knowing what kind of people are in front of you, it can be disastrous, to put it mildly.
Connect Savannah: Is it your responsibility to force them out of their comfort zones?
Peter Shannon: That’s an interesting thought. I think it’s fair to say that amateurs tend to bring about thirty percent, and you have a chance as a conductor to bring it up to about seventy or eighty percent, depending on how much effort they put in themselves. Whereas, with a professional orchestra, they bring you eighty or ninety percent and you bring it up to ninety-five.
Thanks to Gretchen and the search committee, they’ve found someone who will surely push them out of their comfort zones. But it’s easy for me to imagine taking up that responsibility because the choir themselves have given me the signal that they really want someone who’ll grab them by the throat and demand the best that they have to offer. That’s an absolutely luxurious situation for a conductor.
Connect Savannah: But they may not know exactly what they’re asking for.
Peter Shannon: (laughs) Well, exactly! That’s a good point! They don’t know yet just what that will entail, but you have to respect the whole philosophy. I think I bring something to this area that other visiting American conductors can’t. It’ll be interesting to see how it all pans out.
Connect Savannah: Conductors travelling around, splitting their time between many symphonies — is that common?
Peter Shannon: Unfortunately it is, and I say unfortunately because what I really like about conducting my ensemble in Heidelberg —which I’ve had for ten years now— is that you make a gesture or a move when conducting, and you know exactly what reaction you’ll get. It’s like being at home. When I’m there, I can just do my thing, and they like me and I like all of them. We kind of hit every nail on the head. That’s the same situation I feel I can get here in Savannah.
I’d like to make this my home. I don’t foresee staying for two years and then heading somewhere else. That’s not really me. I like to get my hands into something and work with it till it’s in excellent shape. I’ve done that in Heidelberg, and that’s why it feels okay for me to now move on. I must also say that living in Germany as I have for almost fifteen years, I felt the warmth of the people here. And, I don’t mean that in any kind of pandering way! This is a very hospitable city, and if you’re used to the German mentality, it really is a culture shock. Just the fact that strangers willingly interact with you in a friendly way says a lot! (laughs) It’s beautiful, and I’m looking very forward to living here.
Connect Savannah: What about the SCS needs the most improvement?
Peter Shannon: There’s some technical problems that we’ll have to address, but what I’ll try and do as soon as possible is wake their individual and collective fantasies. Try and make a more personalized music. That’s the only kind of music making there is for me. Music with soul. If it doesn’t have soul, then it’s just notes.
Connect Savannah: Do you dig pops shows?
Peter Shannon: It’s funny you ask that, because just before you arrived, I was sitting at the piano, playing some Carpenters songs. For me, I can very, very easily go from Carpenters to Mozart. Like I said before, there’s good music and there’s bad music. There’s a lot of exceptionally bad pop music. Now, if you go back to the 18th Century, there was some bad classical music, too. (laughs)
But there is excellent pop music. Take U2 or Sting, for example. You can keep going. George Michael, for me. Michael Jackson —I’m sorry to say— absolute musical genius. Now, the classical era is where I find the most of myself, but you know, “Top Of The World,” “Close To You,” they’re not bad! (laughs) ƒç
The Savannah Choral Society’s Holiday Pops Concert takes place Saturday at 8 pm. Tickets range from $10 to $25, with $5 discounts given in all price ranges for children under 12. For more info, call 651-6556.