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The rock concerts of their day
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Scott Speck is a busy man.

In fact, to most folks, Speck might be considered something of a workaholic.

He currently divides his time between a myriad of obligations, including multiple music-related jobs – such as being the Music Director of Alabama’s Mobile Symphony, Michigan’s West Shore Symphony, and the Washington Ballet.

He is also known worldwide as the co-author of two of the best-selling books on classical music ever written for a mainstream audience, Classical Music for Dummies and Opera for Dummies. They have been translated into over fifteen languages. His third book, Ballet for Dummies, was released to enthusiastic reviews just over a year ago.

Now, the former Assistant Conductor of the Savannah Symphony (from 1995-1999) is heading back to the Coastal Empire to act as the guest conductor for the upcoming Picnic In The Park – a beloved city-sponsored event that has continued annually despite our orchestra’s messy dissolution in 2003.

So how exactly does he juggle it all?

“I am very busy. That’s definitely true,” he says. “But then again, on the other hand, you can’t be in two places at once. I’ve tried to arrange things in a way that makes it easy for me to do what I want. For example, I have two homes that I’m renting – one in Mobile and one in Michigan. That way, there’s a sense of relaxation upon reaching either place.”

The widely-respected conductor caught the music bug early in life and before stepping to the podium, learned to play a handful of instruments.

“I started on piano when I was about six,” he recounts. “And, I took cello after college to understand the strings. I also played a little bit of percussion, and I’ve sung in choruses most all of my life.”

But these days,” he says with a laugh, “I just wave the stick.”

While tales of players who yearn to conduct are almost as cliché as those of actors who yearn to direct, Speck says he never felt a particular calling.

That’s just the way things worked out.

“I basically fell into it,” he offers.

“I was making music as a participant in small groups, and I realized this was a huge amount of fun. Pretty soon, I found that I had musical ideas to share that I thought I could get across most effectively by being a conductor.”

Carl Polk agrees.

Polk, the principal trombonist and Event Coordinator for the Picnic In The Park Orchestra – and a longtime member of the now-defunct Savannah Symphony (he joined in 1978, fresh out of music school) – says he’s delighted to work alongside Speck again, as are many of the other forty-four talented musicians who’ll be on hand for Sunday’s show.

“I’m really looking forward to Scott coming back,” he enthuses. “He was one of my favorite Associate Conductors.”

Polk points to a number of areas in which he feels Speck excels.

“I admire him for his professionalism, his enthusiasm, and for his respect for the musicians themselves.”

Polk notes that most musicians taking part in this show (many of whom either played with our symphony or are currently with the Hilton Head Orchestra) have worked with Speck before.

He says that the conductor’s reputation reaches far beyond the bandstand.

“He was always great with the audiences. He has such a rapport. Plus, his name carries a lot of recognition around here... Scott knows just what to program to get the people excited.”

This year’s concert will include everything from film scores to Broadway medleys to works by German, Austrian and American composers.

“What works best in Forsyth Park is always a mix between light classics and pops,” says Speck, offering a window into his methodology for crafting programs geared for young and old alike.

“My contention is that some of the light classics are even more familiar than the pops. The crowd might know The Lone Ranger theme, but they don’t necessarily know it’s by Rossini.

“I also wanted to do a lot of the music that symphonies do best. We have some incredibly powerful selections from my favorite movie composer, John Williams – including some from his score to E.T. – that never fail to rouse people. I tried to pick things that would sound best if heard live as opposed to on record, because the chances to hear live orchestral music in Savannah are few. “

According to Speck, one of his goals in life is to educate the public on the value of finding personal enrichment through classical music. It’s something he feels strongly about, and it comes through clearly – even over the phone.

“You know, when people go to a rock concert, they don’t go for enlightenmen, or for education or because it’s good for them. (laughs) They go because it’s fun! We want people to know that’s why classical music was written.

“For the longest time, the trappings of this genre were such that they alienated large groups of people. And I lay the blame for this almost squarely at the feet of the classical music world. These horrible stereotypes are perpetuated most vigorously by people who are actually trying to help classical music.

“I mean, when Mozart and Rossini and Verdi wrote their music, they expected audiences to cheer and yell and stomp. Not just between movements, but during the movements! It was the social peer pressure levied by the classical music world in the early to mid 20th Century that caused this behavioral training. Don’t forget, originally, classical music was pop music! Those were the rock concerts of their day.

“Now, I try to make sure the symphonies I work with are relevant for their communities’ needs. But the community is not the tail that wags the dog. The community is the dog. (laughs)”

Speck hopes to remind people in Savannah how important it is to support this type of living, breathing artwork.

“People who don’t go the symphony regularly may not realize this, but although having a full-time orchestra in your city is an incredible feather in your cap, it’s also a very real kind of spiritual sustenance.

“I would think that in Savannah, since shows of this type are happening less often, this concert might seem all the more precious and sweet.”

The show starts at 4:30 p.m. this Sunday, with a performance by the Savannah Arts Academy Jazz Band, followed at 5:30 p.m. by the Savannah Arts Academy Orchestra. The Picnic In The Park Orchestra begins at 7 p.m. The event is free to the public. Blankets and lawnchairs are encouraged.