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Savannah Sinfonietta's American Icons
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When it rains, it pours. That’s certainly been the case for classical music performances in Savannah lately.

For almost half a decade, since the ignominious shutdown and subsequent bankruptcy of the Savannah Symphony, local residents have had a distinct lack of opportunities to enjoy such music in a live setting. Recently, though, an influx of area appearances (and upcoming shows) by such established out-of-town organizations as the Charleston, Jacksonville and Atlanta Symphony Orchestras have provided some measure of relief.

Additionally, the newly-formed Southern Georgia Symphony (a regional group associated with Georgia Southern University’s student orchestra) has announced a full schedule for the 2006-2007 season.

All things considered, it might seem folly for another upstart classical group to throw their hat into the ring. Not so, says Bill Keith, Artistic and Executive Director of the Savannah Sinfonietta, a brand-new organization of pro players that also seeks to fill the void left by the disintegration of the beloved Savannah Symphony.

He says that he expects the Sinfonietta to complement, rather than compete with the myriad of choices now afforded local listeners.

“We’re basically aiming to be a flexible, full-service group that can serve niche-markets, and bring a variety of classical music to a variety of neighborhoods.”

Keith —who’s a professional trumpeter himself, and has taught that instrument at three different colleges— says he became interested in forming some sort of orchestra in the fall of 2005.

“I joined Trinity United Methodist Church as a member, and we were looking for ways to both grow the congregation and raise money for restoring our historic building,” he says. “I realized what a wonderful acoustic space the church has for presenting music, and wondered how many former Savannah Symphony members were still living here.”

After negotiating a per-service rate for his Sinfonietta with the local Musicians’ Union, Keith contacted a few locations he felt would be receptive to hosting a professional classical ensemble. He was elated that “everybody wanted it.”

In an interesting commentary on the importance of “rolling with the punches,” he says the smaller size of his group, coupled with their willingness to play atypical venues, makes all the difference in the world when it comes to remaining viable.

“The paradigm has reversed somewhat,” he explains. “In the old symphony, everyone was supposed to come downtown to the Johnny Mercer Theater for a one-night event that held 2,600 people. This is a 30 to 35-person chamber orchestra instead of a 70-piece, so we can reach out to different communities: Skidaway Island; the JEA; Trinity United Methodist downtown; United Methodist in Richmond Hill; and Sun City over in Hilton Head. We’re going to likely draw the same 2,600 people, but over several nights — by bringing it to them.”

The Sinfonietta has already applied for official nonprofit status, and Keith says within a month they’ll start fund-raising for next year.

“From a financial standpoint, this makes a lot more sense than the old model. It should only cost us 10-15 percent of what it cost the Savannah Symphony to reach the same crowds.”

Keith is perhaps most excited by the opportunity to welcome a world-class vocalist into his group’s fold. Soprano Mary Wilson, a rising star in the classical world, has sung chamber music, oratorio and opera (and won rave after rave from critics, who have described her voice as “pure,” “diamintine,” and “lustrous,” and her enunciation as “sterling”) with —among others— the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the National Philharmonic. She will soon make her European debut with the legendary Zubin Mehta and the Israeli Philharmonic.

Wilson recently relocated to Richmond Hill of all places, owing to her husband Todd’s new position as United Methodist Church’s Minister of Music. “I called her agent,” says Keith, “and she was going to be in town during our shows, and was willing to do this. She’ll join baritone Roger Moss on Copland’s ‘Old American Songs.

Savannah Sinfonietta’s American Icons happens Friday at Richmond Hill United Methodist, Saturday at Trinity United Methodist, Sunday at Skidaway Island Presbyterian. All shows start at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students at the door.