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A vocal Christmas
Peter Shannon and the Savannah Philharmonic Chorus celebrate the season
Philharmonic Chorus conductor Peter Shannon - photo by Bill DeYoung

Conductor Peter Shannon shoulders the responsibility for this weekend’s Savannah Philharmonic Chorus holiday concert, Carols in the Cathedral. The musical portion of the recent Nutcracker in Savannah also rested on his shoulders.

The thing is, Shannon’s only got one shoulder to work with.

During a group bicycling outing in early November, Shannon found himself on the business end of a multi–rider pileup. “I fell on my head and my right shoulder,” recalls the avid outdoorsman.

Luckily, Shannon’s head was hard enough to absorb the fall. His shoulder, however, was badly separated, causing him great pain, and limited movement.

Tough going for a man who needs his arms — and, therefore, his shoulders — to satisfactorily ply his chosen trade.

Originally misdiagnosed as a sprain, the shoulder separation may require surgery. “Half of the specialists say leave it alone, it’ll heal on its own just as well without an operation,” Shannon reports. “And the other half say do it, and do it immediately. So we’ll wait and see.“

In the meantime, there’s work to be done. Shannon is soldiering on through the pain; although his left hand (which is OK) conducts the orchestra’s phasing and expression, his right (which he can’t raise too high into the air) is in charge of the all–important changes in tempo and rhythm.

The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra isn’t part of Carols in the Cathedral, but the chorus most definitely is.

Born in Ireland, Shannon cut his conducting teeth during a 10–year stay in Germany; in both countries, Christmas celebrations are a pretty big deal.

So planning Christmas in the Cathedral — before he took that tumble in November — was a pleasure for its conductor and artistic director.

“Everybody’s Christmas is rooted in their childhood,” Shannon says. “That’s fair to say, isn’t it? You’d be hard pushed, I think, to find somebody who’d say their most beautiful Christmas memories are in their adult life.”
The 80–person chorus, plus guest soloists and a 10–member brass ensemble, will perform everything from “Sleigh Ride” to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

It’s a gamut–runner, for sure, but Shannon always had one audience in mind:

“A lot of the repertoire for this concert, I based around what I think my mother would like to hear. My mother is very musical, but she’s never played an instrument in her life. She’s never sung in an orchestra. She just likes listening to music.

“She represents what most music lovers — who would go to a concert like this — would like to hear. She’s not highbrow, her taste. She loves the best of everything, from a good country and western singer to the Three Tenors.” (Shannon himself says he’s not much of a Three Tenors fan.)

For the record, his mum resides in Cork, in Southern Ireland.

The guest soloists include soprano Tina Zenker Williams, baritone Jason Moon, organist Paul Fejko, and Shannon’s fellow Irishman Harry O’Donoghue, a Savannah resident who sings and strums regularly at Kevin Barry’s place on River Street.

Shannon’s idea was to keep the concert moving at a brisk clip.

“We’ve the chorus, we’ve the brass, it’s still ‘classical,’” he says. “whereas Harry comes out with the guitar, and he’s just got this way about him. He’s very personable, with a beautiful voice.

“I think he represents Ireland in a way that’s not typical. Although he sings in pubs and clubs, he’s not the typical ‘bring your guitar and shout bawdy songs in the pub.’ He’s very refined, is how I describe him. He’s a class act.”

Listening to a full–throated chorus in a lovely, historic cathedral, Shannon believes, might be the most Christmassy of Christmas experiences.

The audience will be encouraged to sing along.

“Even though people’s worst nightmare is to be asked to sing something, everybody wants to sing at Christmas,” he says. “It sounds stupid, but it’s the way it is. And I can completely relate to that. Now me, I want to sing all the time. That’s what I’ve been doing since I was 4.

“But I think there’s an ‘in’ to someone’s soul when you get them to sing. It’s not just psychological or philosophical, it’s also been physically proved. It’s a physical phenomenon that when people sing, they breathe more, they open up. They become emotionally attached. They connect.”

Four area charities are the beneficiaries for the concert — those who purchase the top–end tickets, at $100 per, will be donating $50 to Big Brothers Big Sisters, AWOL and other deserving organizations.

The $30 tickets are pretty much sold out already — although, says Shannon, some of those seats might be available at the last minute, should those who made reservations choose not to show up.

The thing to do is arrive at the box office early and put your name on a list.

If you can’t get a seat, however, don’t go crying on Peter Shannon’s shoulder. He can’t spare it.

Savannah Philharmonic Chorus: Carols in the Cathedral

Where: Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 222 E. Harris St.

When: At 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18

Tickets: $30 general admission; $100 reserved (includes a $50 donation to local charities)