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String awakening
World-renowned violinist Ulf Hoelscher solos with the Savannah Philharmonic
Ulf Hoelscher

Perhaps "fun" isn't a word people tend to associate with classical music, but Peter Shannon, the music director and conductor of the Savannah Philharmonic, uses the word a lot when describing the performing and listening experience.

"It's not liked a picnic," Shannon says, "it's not like grilling at the beach But at the same time the function of all music is to make you cry, to make you laugh, to make you excited. This stuff emotes."

This weekend's concert, Spring Awakening, includes music from German composers Beethoven, Bruch and Schumann, all titans of the so-called Romantic Period, which is characterized by accelerated dynamics and yes, emotion.

Although Schumann's richly esoteric Symphony No. 1 (Spring) gives the Philharmonic concert its title, the centerpiece is Bruch's Violin Concerto in g minor.

"It's very famous," Shannon explains. "If you listen to it through, you'd say ‘Ah, yes, I've heard that before.' It's one of those pieces that you've heard but you can't quite place.

"And poor old Bruch, he obviously didn't think much of himself because he sold it to his publisher without getting any royalties, and it turned out to be a ‘smash hit.'"

Max Bruch (1838-1920), while he never composed a symphony, is well-known for his colorful concertos for violin, and for otyher pieces including Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra.

Because of the Violin Concerto No. 1 in g minor, he's got his own gold-leaf page in the history books.

"The second movement, for me anyway, is like something from another planet," Shannon says. "It's really, really beautiful. It's like an exercise in spirituality, almost."

The performance will begin with the King Stephen Overture - don't make the mistake of calling it the Stephen King Overture, because there are no ghosts or aliens involved - which Beethoven was commissioned to write in 1811 for the opening of a grand new theater in Hungary. It is one of the great composer's most rarely-played works.

"Beethoven," Shannon enthuses, "is probably my favorite composer; the one I feel the most affinity to."

Next on the program, he explains, is the Bruch piece. "It gets progressively more romantic as the evening gets on."

The guest soloist is violinist Ulf Hoelscher, who had his heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s, playing with top orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Chicago and Philadelphia symphonies.

In fact, Hoelscher's recordings of the Violin Concerto No. 1 in in g minor are considered the definite recorded performances of the piece.

Shannon has no doubt that Hoelscher - a world-class musician - will bring the Savannah concert experience up to a new level.

"You may not be able to necessarily describe the difference between excellence and brilliance, but you can feel it if it's done right," he says. "In every genre of the arts. People sense when they're looking at an incredible painting by a master. It's probably aesthetic as well.

"The word ‘maestro' is bandied around a lot in America - if you're a conductor, it's the default name they call you. And ‘maestro' really means ‘master.' It's a pity, because when you have a maestro in front of you, you really, really do know it.

"And this guy's a maestro, there's no doubt about that in my mind. I mean, I'm looking forward to making music with him. I'm going to learn a lot from him."

Having such a prestigious soloist, playing with the top classical musicians from our area, ups the ante. For players and listeners alike.

"It's the color they bring to a piece," says Shannon. "It's 40, 50 years on the professional stage, playing with the greatest orchestras in the world.

"I suppose it's nice to know that this person is a genius. If you're listening intently, it's such a moving experience."

Spring Awakening

Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

When: At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11

Tickets: $16-$65

Phone: (912) 525-5050