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Music you can sink your teeth into
Picnic in the Park returns to Forsyth this Sunday
William Keith, director and conductor of the Savannah Sinfonietta

AFTER TAKING a year off, one of Savannah’s most beloved public events returns to its traditional outdoor stage in Forsyth Park.

Picnic in the Park, featuring music by the Savannah Sinfonietta, is this Sunday, with events starting at 5 p.m.

For many years, the Picnic was a staple of autumn life, with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra playing a rousing pops program. And of course there were the picnics, all in a spirit of culinary competition — some small and tasteful, others large and garish, some elaborately themed, others all about the food.

Then the bottom fell out.

“When the symphony went bankrupt, there was no longer an organization to put on this free outdoor festival that the community had come to expect and love,” says Eileen Baker, executive director of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

“At that point our office contracted with some musicians still in the area to put on the concert. We called them the Picnic in the Park Orchestra.”

That went on for two years, until enough musicians left the area for jobs elsewhere that it became untenable. So in 2006, for the first time in a very long time, there was no Picnic in the Park at all.

“The void was really felt in the community. Not just in not having a concert, but in not having a locally-based orchestra,” Baker says.

So in 2006 the Cultural Affairs Commission recommended that the city council fund the concert once again.

When Savannah Sinfonietta Executive and Artistic Director William Keith came to Baker and asked if he and the group could take on the role of presenting Picnic in the Park, Baker says it was a no-brainer.

Keith, who will also wield the baton for this Sunday’s headline performance, says the Sinfonietta’s performers are in no way put off by the pops nature of the concert.

“It’s an orchestral tradition, and it’s good for the players. It makes them stretch. Most orchestras also have a pops cycle in there — it’s a balance to what they do the rest of the season,” says Keith, who directs the Sinfonietta in a number of well-received traditional concerts throughout the year.

“It’s like having a well-balanced meal,” he says, in keeping with the picnic theme. “You’ve got your substantial entree, and then you’ve got dessert.”

Keith says from a musician’s standpoint, “It’s all about the professionalism. It’s all about the final product, whether pops or a Brahms symphony, and how flawless and well-rehearsed it is.”

As for those rehearsals, Keith says the Sinfonietta will have only two full rehearsals before the concert. That may not sound like a lot, but in the classical music world — populated by dedicated players who see it as their full-time job to be proficient on their instruments — that’s the norm.

“They generally get the music two weeks in advance,” Keith explains. “As they’re all professionals, they take it to heart and really practice and get in complete control of their parts.”

Baker says the Picnic in the Park is a crucial part of Savannah’s cultural landscape, not least because — perhaps counterintuitively given its elite reputation — classical music is actually underserved locally.

“The main importance is to showcase our local and regional musicians,” Baker says. “Most children, when they learn music, are classically trained. There needs to be those assets in our community so that we don’t have to import them.”

Baker says one of the best investments the community can make is in the arts.

“I honestly think it’s as critical in the long run as any other infrastructure,” she says. “Savannah is known as a rich cultural community, and we have this beautiful park. By having the music and having the venue, an event like this can inspire our residents and bring people together.”

As for William Keith, he wants to pass on another bit of news: The American Orchestra League selected him to take part in their nationwide mentorship program.

“I was one of eight applicants they approached. I’m paired up with the executive director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, so I’ll have someone I can sort of brainstorm with and ask for guidance,” Keith says.

“I’m major pumped!”

Picnic in the Park Schedule

4:30 p.m. picnic registration begins

5 p.m. Savannah Children’s Chorus performs

6 p.m. Savannah Arts Jazz Band performs

7 p.m. announcement of picnic competition winners

7:15 p.m. Savannah Sinfonietta performs:

Star Spangled Banner

Williams, Olympic Fanfare, Hymn to the Fallen, Raiders March, Star Wars: Phantom Menace

Gould, American Salute

Schwartz, “When You Believe”, from The Prince Of Egypt

Williams, “Double Trouble”, from Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban, with the Savannah Children’s Choir

Hayman, Pops Hoedown

Newman, “When He Loved Me,” from Toy Story

Bennet/Bernstein, selections from West Side Story

Sousa, The Washington Post March

Zimmer, Symphonic Suite from Pirates Of The Caribbean

Williams, Theme from Schindler’s List

Lowden, Armed Forces Salute

Gershwin/Bennett, Selections from Porgy and Bess

Carmichael, Georgia on My Mind