THIS PAST OCTOBER IN ST. JOHN'S CATHEDRAL, the Savannah Choral Society —under the direction of conductor Peter Shannon— staged a production of Mendelssohn's famed oratorio Elijah that was notable in two key respects:
First, it was the largest classical production in this city in half a decade (incorporating the Savannah Sinfonietta, Savannah Children’s Choir, Savannah Country Day Choir and the AASU Choir). Second, it was a smash success.
“Not only did we sell out,” recalls Shannon, “we turned away 250 people! So many told us afterwards they were amazed at the scale and quality of the concert.”
Shannon, specifically brought to town from Heidelberg, Germany, by the SCS to “take their organization to the next level”, is familiar with that type of response. It was his reputation as an uncompromising conductor with a knack for bringing out the best in players which attracted the volunteer singing group formerly known as the Savannah Symphony Chorus.
Now, in a move that for some strange reason seems to have gone relatively unheralded, the SCS and the Savannah Sinfonietta have once again joined forces, to present what many describe as the most ambitious classical concert ever attempted in Savannah: a fully-staged production of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera La Traviata.
With a massive cast of actors and professional musicians —including a 40 member local orchestra, a 70-member local chorus and eight highly esteemed guest soloists— Shannon calls this the most taxing undertaking possible.
“It doesn’t get any more elaborate or more stressful than this. (Laughs) First, it’s two-and-a-half hours long. But the costuming and direction is bringing the Society into a realm they’ve never approached.”
If Shannon seems a bit over-enthusiastic, it’s because he literally sees this particular production as a “turning point” for the long-term viability of locally produced classical music events in Savannah.
While much of the resentment among supporters of the (famously) defunct Savannah Symphony has to a great extent faded, the scars from that blow to the community’s cultural landscape still show. Shannon understands the reasons for the lingering mistrust some donors and audience members may have for subsequent organizations, but feels that between his extensive, European orchestral training and the largely under-appreciated talent pool of singers and instrumentalists which make up the SCS and the Sinfonietta, there now exists the potential for greatness.
All these participants now require is copious moral and financial support, he says.
“For this show, I’ve called in personal favors and used contacts of mine in the European opera world,” says Shannon. “The soloists are basically performing for free.”
“Some have been rehearsing in Austria with star vocalist Barbara Bonney. It’s our big chance to bring over quality, international talent and expose local audiences —and our musicians— to artistic excellence.”
“If Savannah truly wants this caliber of classical music, they can have it! But at some stage, everyone has to come down off the fence and seriously back it. I simply can’t continue to call in favors.
“We’re trying to prove a point. We did it with Elijah, and we’re doing it again. We know we can do things on this scale.”
As for anyone who may still doubt Savannah is capable of putting on standout classical events using virtually all local talent, Shannon is unequivocal.
“This is slam-dunk time. Brace yourself, Savannah! I feel very confident that with the amount of energy that’s gone into this it can’t be anything less than a triumph.”
Savannah’s Choral Society & Sinfonietta present: La TraviataWhere: Lucas TheatreWhen: 7 p.m., Sat., April 19 Cost: $47-$27 ($5 discount for students and kids under 12) at lucastheatre.com or 525-5050Info: savannahchoralsociety.org