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Home for the holidays
For the Savannah Philharmonic, the summer's end means it's time to play
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The Savannah Philharmonic.

Summer is over, school's back in, and the annual cycle is repeating once again. But you won't get Peter Shannon to see things that way.

"For me, it's the opposite way around," explains the artistic director and conductor of the Savannah Philharmonic. "It's like summer holidays are coming. We can't wait. I've had so many phone calls from the orchestral chairs; they're so excited about this first piece, the Shostakovich symphony."

Shostakovich's 5th Symphony (we'll get to that in a minute) is the coup de grace for the orchestra's season opening concert, Sept. 8 at the Lucas Theatre.

Shannon, and the orchestra itself, are beginning their fourth official year in town. Musical quality, patronage and support have been growing exponentially, with many (if not all) of the group's concerts selling out.

The 43-year-old native of Cork, Ireland is the father of two very young children. He's settled in nicely. As to the orchestra's success, he gives props not only to his musicians, but to board chair Melissa Emery and executive director David Pratt, whose work, he says, is tireless.

"It gives me the sense that I can really concentrate on what I need to concentrate on, my music," Shannon enthuses. "It gives me a sense of security, too, that was maybe in the beginning up in the air. Moving on is always high on the list of a musician who's trying to grow. You're always moving on to the next thing, and that means having children and a family is always difficult. It cuts into your music life.

"But Savannah, and the growth of the organization, gives me the sense that look, I can concentrate on my music. I don't need to do all these other things like fundraising and marketing, all these things that David does. Yeah, it gives me the freedom to do my music, but it also gives me the sense of security I need to have a family. The growth of the organization also gives me a chance to grow. I'm not worried about where the next paycheck is coming from."

Shannon spent a decade conducting at Collegium Musicum in Heidelberg, Germany. By the end, he says, he and the players had fine-tuned an astonishing telepathy. They knew what he wanted before he even opened his mouth.

But as he got closer to his 40th birthday, he started imagining the next 25 years of his life in Heidelberg. Hungry for a new challenge, he resigned.

Shannon arrived in Georgia to conduct the all-volunteer Savannah Choral Society - he has an extensive background in vocal music, too - which developed into the Savannah Philharmonic and Chorus.

"It's never been about being somewhere big, and conducting a big, famous orchestra," Shannon explains. "For me, it's that you may motivate the orchestra, but they motivate you, too. That's something that people don't often think of.

"Once I feel that I'm working with a group where people really appreciate music, and with musicians that really want to get to the next level, that's really the goal. My goal is to be in an environment where I can grow, and where what I'm doing is appreciated. And Savannah is that."

Shannon believes that planting one's feet in a community, with a specific group of like-minded musicians, is paramount to success. Guest conducting - taking the podium in different cities - isn't his cup of tea.

"When I walk into that room and start to conduct," he says, "I want to be surrounded by people who go ‘We like this guy. We love his music-making. We're gonna bleed for him, musically, onstage.' They know and trust me.

"You really have to have your own orchestra, I think, to do that. Going in somewhere else, people don't get that sense of trust. They don't know who you are, and there's always that little power struggle between an orchestra and a conductor: ‘Let's see how good this guy really is.' You always have to go through that tension.

"And sometimes it's just bullshit. I have no time for it now. And the older I get, the less patience I have for that kind of thing."

The season opener will begin with Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, and the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 (with guest pianist Yejin Noh).

Ah, but the Shostakovich is Shannon's trump card.

The conductor loves dramatic music. "The ending of this piece is one of most brutal and physical pieces of orchestral writing in the repertoire," he says. "It's pure, raw emotion on the page. You can literally see the violence on the page - because of the black notes, and the heavy lines, and the accents. Just to look at it on page is kind of scary. It's just black."

Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the most successful and acclaimed composers in the Soviet Union. Symphony No. 5 (1937) is legendary for its seductive bombast; it was the composer's response to his earlier denunciation by Stalin's government.

According to Shannon, the piece was meant, quite specifically, to sound like militaristic propaganda.

"He's basically writing in music that thing ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves.' He's writing about the Stalin era, the great purge in the late ‘30s, early ‘40s. They say Shostakovich lived with a packed suitcase under his bed. He was so fearful, because so many of his fellow artists literally disappeared."

The music is sardonic and sarcastic, which Stalin, much to Shostakovich's apparent relief, didn't get. "The guy was living on such thin ice," says Shannon. "And then he writes this piece that pretends to be a celebration of Russian power, but really it's like ‘Aren't we just disgusting?'

"To have the balls to put that to paper, and then show yourself in public, it was a very, very dodgy thing."

Building a first-class orchestra in Savannah, where an earlier symphonic group had already crashed and burned, was a dodgy thing, too. But Peter Shannon, with a little help from his friends, made it a reality.

"I love that people are saying that it's a great orchestra," he says. "But we are maybe at 40 percent of the max now. These guys are gonna be so good in five years' time. It's not really that I'm going to be training them to be better, it's just that I know what to do to make them understand how to play better together.

"And I'm looking forward to working with them on that."

Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra

Season Opening Concert

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

When: At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8

Tickets: $16-65 at

Phone: (912) 525-5050

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