The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra opens its fifth season this week with a close to sold-out concert at the Lucas Theatre. That, in itself, is something to celebrate — after its predecessor crashed and burned amid bad debts and hard feelings, the Phil began life as the phoenix nobody really expected to fly.
In no time, with freshly-hired artistic director and conductor Peter Shannon making all the right decisions, things turned remarkably around for the better. And then the Savannah Philharmonic was the little orchestra that could.
Shannon and company start another season with the world premiere of a brand new violin concerto by John Buckley, who is Ireland's premiere contemporary composer. The Sept. 21 program will also include Bernstein's Candide Overture and Beethoven's immortal Fifth Symphony, but it's the Buckley piece that makes this something special.
A big reason for that is the guest soloist. She's Hungarian-born violinist Gwendolyn Masin, a virtuoso who's spent most of her life in Ireland. A musician who graduated with high honors from the Royal Schools of Music in London (England), the Hochschule der Künste in Berne (Switzerland), and the Musikhochschule in Lübeck (Germany), Masin has a long association with Buckley. In fact, she says, he wrote this new concerto specifically for her.
"I, as all those who studied music in the 1990's and the turn of the century in Ireland, am very familiar with John's name and body of work," Masin tells Connect.
"His solo sonata for violin was part of the syllabus, a work we all studied in great detail and as part of our final examinations at high school.
"I come from a long line of musicians, and my father performed the solo sonata on a number of occasions — so the ties between John and my family go back a number of years. John is a frequent visitor of my concerts and proposed writing the concerto for me in 1998 — it's been a long and eventful journey towards its premiere performance."
Masin says that Buckley has allowed her to "collaborate" on the piece. "It's been 15 years — nearly half my life — that this work has accompanied me, and during that time John has opened my ears and eyes to, for me, new ways of considering music and its notation."
In an e-mail, Buckley describes the work thusly: "Traditionally, the concertos of the Classical and Romantic eras feature at least one cadenza, marked by the use of flamboyant bravura-style playing. The fourth section of my concerto pays homage to this tradition.
"The cadenza is highly demanding technically, and while fully notated, should give the impression of an inspired improvisation. It leads to a quiet conclusion, the music disappearing into the silence from which the whole piece emerged."
All right, but why Savannah? Shannon, of course, is Irish through and through. He has a background in choral music and studied for many years in Dublin — he sang baritone in the RTÉ National Chamber Choir — before accepting long-term, prestige conducting spots with German orchestras. Shannon came to the lowcountry in 2007.
"Some years ago, I performed Ravel's "Tzigane" in Dublin's National Concert Hall with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra," Masin explains. "The concert was conducted by Peter Shannon.
"Peter and John know each other, and Peter has been a great advocate for having the work premiered in Savannah."
Masin, who'll go on to Statesboro Sept. 24 to teach a master class in the Buckley work at Georgia Southern University, praises Shannon for "sounding" new music with the Savannah Phil.
"Moreover," she adds, "it's an immense testament to Peter and the Savannah Philharmonic's consistent delivery of great music, as well as their audiences' readiness to listen to music they might be less familiar with, that the concert is being rewarded with a by-and-large sold-out hall."
Opening Night: Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21
Tickets: $16-$70 at savannahphilharmonic.org