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Shannon on the Philharmonic
Conductor speaks about this weekend's opener and a very diverse season

Savannah Philharmonic

Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Dvorák, soloist Fanya Lin

Sat. Sept. 13, 7:30 p.m. Lucas Theatre

THE SAVANNAH Philharmonic's summer break has been a bit like that one summer you took lots of photos and regretted nothing. There's been a lot of activity, to say the least.

Since the curtain closed on last season, the orchestra announced that conductor Peter Shannon will take a second job, conducting the orchestra in Jackson, TN.

And last month, the ensemble announced a collaborative production. They’ll put on two Puccini operas in March, with the Savannah Music Festival and Savannah Voice Festival.

This week, however, the focus gets back to where it all belongs: on that baton, that first downbeat, when the magic begins and the music pours non-stop through spring.

I spoke to Shannon about the upcoming season, including opening night’s meaty Dvorák. The Czech composer on a program usually means his popular ninth symphony, “From the New World.” But Shannon is going with Dvorák’s pastoral seventh symphony.

“It’s quite somber, which is unique in Dvorák’s work,” Shannon says. “But I absolutely love it. And the somberness of the first movement is contrasted with the scherzo in the third movement, which is incredibly lighthearted and very cleverly put together.”

The season opener also features a piano tour de force, Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.” It’s a popular work, setting 24 musical variations end to end as one piece. I guarantee you’ve heard the swooning 18th variation.

Rounding out Saturday’s concert will be a medley of booze-swilled student songs, timely enough for us. Brahms wrote his “Academic Festival Overture” as a tongue-in-cheek ode to his college benefactors. 

Later, Shannon says he’s looking forward to the challenging all-German season closer in May. And folks like me who like a little contemporary music will get a rise in April.

“We’re going to try and do... modern, and try that first in a chamber setting and see if there’s an audience,” Shannon says.  “Savannah’s a quirky town, as you know.”

Quirky enough for works composed in 1932, 1940 and 1944 at least. The conductor says if all goes well, that concert, featuring about a half-dozen musicians, will be a preview for even bigger and more modern works, by living composers, next year.

Whiplash now. Haydn. His magnificent, looking-back-to-Handel “The Creation” is on the calendar. The orchestra and chorus will perform this sacred and lavish oratorio in the dead of winter. And if that doesn’t merit highlight, nothing does.

Will any of these exacting concerts suffer from Shannon’s monthly, weeklong visits with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra? He says, far from it, assuring that more baton time will compliment his work here. Like an athlete practices, a conductor must conduct.

“That really translates into a much more sovereign countenance on stage,” Shannon says.  “And that relaxes the musicians, it relaxes me and makes a wonderful catalyst for good music-making.”

Orchestras share conductors all the time. It’s fairly common. And so is collaboration with other affiliated cultural groups. Partnerships bring talent together.

Next year’s “Puccini alliance” might end up being like that modern chamber music concert, a test run, for three growing and evolving, but separate, organizations.

“It’s a hand-in-glove fit,” Shannon says.

The Music Festival, Voice Festival and Philharmonic will present two complete operas on the same bill.  Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” (pronounced “Johnny Ski Key”) and Suor Angelica are typically staged together since they’re two of the composer’s shorter works.

Those tickets go on sale with the Music Festival in November. But for the Philharmonic, your season has just turned.