Anger. Resentment. Depression. Frustration. These are only some of the more commonplace emotions felt by many area residents in the wake of the demise of the Savannah Symphony Orchestra.
  The SSO debuted in the fall of 1953 and bowed with a display of Beethoven, Haydn and Bizet. It ceased to exist in the winter 2003. By the time the final curtain fell, many longtime supporters would describe the organization as one which –while at perhaps the peak of its artistic powers– had grown sorely out of touch with the day-to-day realities of the very community it was created to serve and nourish.
  Hampered by a million dollars in outstanding debt, and in urgent need of close to half that amount for operational expenses, the orchestra shut down and would file for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy protection soon thereafter.
  This abrupt end to a fitful final few years left dozens of talented, professional musicians out of work, many without any additional income to fall back on. It also left scores of season ticket holders in a lurch, and an entire community bereft.
  Since then, several groups of concerned citizens have –at one time or another– launched initiatives to bring live classical music performances back to the Savannah area, either through sponsoring occasional appearances by touring groups or symphonies, or through organizational efforts designed to help create a new version of the old Savannah Symphony Orchestra.
  And yet, to date, none of these attempts to fill that cultural void have really taken hold.
  Now, for the first time since the dissolution of the original Savannah Symphony Orchestra, a new group of individuals, music lovers and performing artists have joined forces to try and rectify that sad situation. In doing so, they’ve been forced to take a long, hard look at the harsh economic realities and shifting audience demographics which conspired to render the old symphony’s business model (arguably) obsolete. Resolute in their belief that an organization structured like the SSO would be destined to quickly fail –if even possible to launch at all– have taken a radically different approach.
  Calling themselves the Southern Georgia Symphony, this upstart conglomeration of professional musicians, music educators, talented students, and private sector advisors have just announced the schedule for their 2006-2007 season, and will be celebrating the formation of the SGS with a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, to be held this upcoming monday at the Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church.
  The four vocalists tackling the 15 parts of this notoriously trying piece of music (and the last piece Mozart composed before his death in 1791) are all members of Georgia Southern University’s Chorale, which is not surprising, as that Statesboro school’s music department is playing a major role in facilitating this new group.
  As if that weren’t enough of a connection – baritone vocalist Allen C. Henderson is also heading up the new Southern Georgia Symphony as its Executive Director. The recital will be conducted by the Symphony’s Music Director, the up-and-coming cellist and conductor Cheung Chau.
  Chau also teaches at Georgia Southern University – when not jetting worldwide to appear as a featured soloist or guest conductor with any number of symphonies across the globe. He’s played a key role in helping to make this new group a reality, and says he’s especially excited to be a part of creating a new organization of this type from the ground up.
  “I began as music director of the (Georgia Southern) orchestra in September 2005,” says the youthful and energetic Chau. “Before Allen and I came there were already hopes for expanding the activities of the symphony. We felt it to be the right time for such expansion to take place, and are very happy to see the very many positive responses.”
  Henderson feels the same way, and says that with Chau on board as Conductor and Music Director, the Southern Georgia Symphony is in very good hands.
  “Cheung is a rising star,” Henderson offers. “He is guest conducting in Europe, Asia and other places as well. A month ago he was conducting a concert in his second season as music director of the Sinfonietta Polonia in Poznan, Poland, an ensemble he began and which critics claim will soon be competition for the Poznan Philharmonic. Two weeks ago he was in China guest conducting the Xiamen Symphony where reviewers stated, ‘he performed with strong resolution and courage.’”
  “Next season he already has additional engagements with the Chinese National Orchestra and the Brandenburg Orchestra near Berlin,” Henderson continues. “Cheung is also an assistant conductor of the Hong Kong Symphony. He has been involved with starting symphonies from the beginning, and has brought such a new energy and excitement to the symphony that people are excited about his presence. He is also a wonderful cellist.  His combination of skills as well as his perseverance and intellect make him perfect for the job.”
  The unique idea that lies at the heart of this intriguing new business model is a partnership between Georgia Southern’s own school orchestra, and an ever-growing cadré of private, professional musicians from throughout the lower half of the state.
  Rather than maintaining a full-time, freestanding symphony, Chau and Henderson are drawing on the large number of talent, under-utilized musicians who reside in the greater Savannah, Augusta, Brunswick and Statesboro areas. They’re augmenting this core group with outstanding students from their study program.
  This affords them the flexibility to maintain a symphony that is made up of players who will take part in more than ninety percent of all the performances in a given season, with the remaining open chairs filled on a per-show basis by a rotating cast of “import musicians.”
  Chau says that despite what some might think about such an arrangement, in many ways it can actually be preferable to the old system that many in the community –and many of the former Savannah Symphony members– are used to.
  “We’ll actually be able to have more rehearsal time with this setup than they used to,” he explains. “Sometimes, the Savannah Symphony Orchestra would only have two full rehearsals of a particular piece before it was performed. That’s more common than people might think when it comes to large symphonies. In the case of the Southern Georgia Symphony, we’ll be having many more rehearsals, and it will allow for a greater understanding of the piece for all the musicians.”
  Ben Roach, a former SSO board member who now ardently supports the SGS, says that he realizes there may be some in the community who will scoff at the notion of an orchestra that mixes professional players with students.
  He says that for anyone who appreciates classical music to sell this endeavor short without first seeing –and hearing– what the new symphony is capable of would be a terrible mistake.
  “I’m not a member of the board of this new outfit and I don’t even know if I’ll be asked to become one,” Roach says. “I’m just an experienced cheerleader! (laughs) By that I mean that I’m just someone who loved classical music, and who bemoaned the loss of it when the SSO shut down. We’ve been looking forward to any opportunity to bringing it back. Now, granted – this is not the ideal situation. We’d all love to have a completely top-drawer, completely professional symphony. But the economics simply can’t justify such a thing.
  “It’s important that people out there understand that this is not just a bunch of kids up there – even though most of us would probably go to that anyway! (laughs) This is a professional group that is being supplemented by extremely talented students from area universities,” Roach says.
  “We all know we can’t have what we had before, but this is a very worthy type of a reincarnation, if you will. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
  Not surprisingly, given his role in this new organization – and his role as an educator – Allen Henderson also champions the notion of bringing professional players and promising students together on the same stage as peers.
  “This is the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the arts in our region. The Atlanta Symphony initially started as a youth orchestra, and their wonderful recent performance as part of the Savannah Music Festival attests to such an origin as a worthy beginning that can lead to a great future,” Henderson says.
  “At our concerts this season in Statesboro, former Savannah symphony members, students, and other professional players performed great works of the orchestral repertoire. Over the next few years we hope to develop the current group into a two-tiered ensemble with the Southern Georgia Symphony developing into a predominantly professional ensemble and a second orchestra of primarily college level and civic members.”
  The general idea is that each of the upcoming season’s shows will be performed twice: once in Statesboro, and once in Savannah at the Lucas Theatre (with the final Pops Concert being held at the much larger Johnny Mercer Theatre, former home of the Savannah Symphony Orchestra).
  Longterm goals include holding additional performances in many outlying regional communities, such as Bluffton, Brunswick and St. Simons Island.
  All involved agree that the difficulties in financing a full-size orchestra have become almost insurmountable in this day and age, and that it was incumbent upon the organization to find inventive ways in which to trim their costs in order not only to remain solvent, but to make sure they could attain another of their major goals: to create a business model that would allow people from a wider variety of income brackets to be able to attend live classical music concerts.
  Explains Henderson: “We believe we have a structure that can achieve these goals and provide much more for our communities. A partnership which truly brings together the resources of a broad constituency to improve the cultural development of our region. The Southern Georgia Symphony is envisioned as a joint regional enterprise. Georgia Southern University, as a partner in the economic development of our region, is providing full financial support for our conductor, maestro Cheung Chau, and other administrative support. This significant partnership lowers overhead costs allowing contributions and other forms of support to more directly impact the quality of programming offered.”
This particular –and slightly unorthodox– aspect of the SGS’ plan is perhaps the single most important factor in creating a fiscal plan that can actually work in today’s economy. According to Roach, in the end, it comes down to money – although he, like all other supporters of the SGS, insist that it’s the promotion of this ageless form of music that matters most.
  “I and several other former board members of the SSO responded favorably when Allen (Henderson) approached us about helping to set up a regional symphony. We met several times and hosted an event at my house where he and the Maestro came and explained what they wanted to do and how they thought it could best be accomplished,” recalls Roach.
  “These folks included Pam Young – who was on and off of the board for over twelve years, and Bob Merritt, who was not only on the board, but served for a time as president. And we had all struggled when we were on the board with the deteriorating situation at the Savannah Symphony in terms of economics. We had lost all federal, state and local funding! So, the ticket prices had escalated to the point where they were approaching $75 for an orchestra seat. We also saw a continuing decline in Season subscribers in each of the five years that I was on the board. All these factors, coupled with the rising costs of the SSO itself made the end somewhat inevitable,” Roach says. “And remember, this is not just Savannah.”
  In fact, during the same season that the Savannah Symphony closed its doors, six other longstanding city orchestras did the same thing – and sadly, this downward spiral continues across the country.
  “Many places much larger than Savannah are dealing with the same thing,” Roach continues. “One of ‘em’s San José. Another that’s teetering on the brink of bankruptcy is Cleveland. Those cities may be as much as ten times our size! So, we are not alone in this.”
  “A lot of us –including me– wish that we could have a full-fledged Savannah Symphony again. I think that was a very strong draw for the cultural appeal of our city. It would still be if we could do it, but it’s just not possible anytime in the near future, and may never be.
  However, at the same time, there are some in the local classical music community who are not nearly as bullish on these developments as Roach, henderson, Cheung and others directly involved with the organization.
  Some of them complain that the SGS will not be a totally unionized operation. Others find a six-concert season to be overly ambitious – especially when one considers  that during that same time period, our town will also see at least another four local performances by established travelling orchestras, including a return appearance by the Atlanta Symphony.
  These are valid criticisms. However, the fact that no shortage of bad feelings still linger regarding the breakup of the SSO (both among musicians and longtime patrons of the arts), and there appears to be at least a bit of animus inherent in some of the negative comments which are now making the rounds in the wake of this announcement.
  Says Roach: “Over half of the players will always be professional musicians from the Statesboro, Savannah and Augusta area, and I’m sure that a number of the faces on our stage will be very familiar to people who used to frequent concerts by the SSO.”
  “We’ve had union members playing in our symphony for some time,” adds Henderson. “This season we have had upwards of ten former Savannah Symphony players in the symphony. I hope those who have played in our symphony for a number of years will continue to contribute their significant talents to this expanded effort.”
  Cheung Chau says he’s hoping for greater involvement from musicians – unionized or not. For him, it’s all about whether or not the public gets a chance to see and hear these wonderful concerts again on a regular basis, and at a reasonable price.
  “Given our time limitations we have had only some preliminary conversations with members of the union,” Chau offers. “But many have also played with us in our current season. We look forward to having more open discussions with the union to build a productive and effective relationship, as a way to show a mutual love of the music itself, not as a money-making venture. Still, an organization of this size and scope cannot operate without a substantial amount of cash.”
  Truth be told, from a financial standpoint, the Southern Georgia Symphony seems – at first glance – to be a winning proposition.
  Rather than holding the majority of their Savannah performances in the 2,400-seat Johnny Mercer Theatre, they’ve entered into a long-term agreement with the 1,200-seat Lucas Theatre, which makes for a more intimate experience for concertgoers – and makes a capacity crowd more likely.
  Furthermore, there’s an added benefit to having college faculty and staff in administrative roles, and students filling out the ranks of the orchestra itself.
  “This was conceived as a partnership,” Henderson explains. “Both Cheung and I are being paid for our efforts through our salaries at Georgia Southern University. Cheung and I are receiving no additional pay for being part of this effort to bring our symphony to the entire region. Beginning in this way allows us to grow over the next several years to include gradually more professional players. By creating economies of scale we are able to use the diverse talents of seasoned professionals on the administration and marketing side and channel more of the funds raised to support this effort into building the artistic product. This would not be the case for any other symphony start-up..”
  Roach –in the plain-spoken, homespun way that is part of his manner– is more than happy to put the whole thing in terms that even a layman could understand.
  “Back in the early Twentieth Century, classical performances drew a lot of Europeans out of their homes for big community concerts. We’re trying to do the same thing and bring this wonderful music to people that may never gave been able – or felt comfortable – to experience it firsthand before,” he says.
“My greatest hope is that we can change the audience. Build and broaden the appeal. We got to the point where a lot of people called the SSO an elitist organization. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but with the graying of our core audience, it may have been true to an extent. Now, with our orchestra seat prices topping out at only $35, and most of the other seats for much less, we can bring in students, and people from all walks of life.”
The Georgia Southern University Chorale (under the direction of Cheung Chau) performs Mozart’s Requiem, 8 pm Monday at Wesley Monumental United Methodist (429 Abercorn St.). All seats are $12.50 ar the SCAD Box Office (phone 525-5050) or online at www.scadboxoffice.com.
To comment, e-mail us at letters@connectsavannah.com

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Connect Today 10.23.2016

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