Savannah Philharmonic: new season, new beginnings

Keitaro Harada talks Bernstein, Gershwin, and more

Savannah Philharmonic’s new Music & Artistic Director Keitaro Harada is starting off his new gig with a bang.

The veteran conductor and musician, who comes to town with an unbelievable resume that includes a four-season stint as Associate Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Pops, is putting on an eclectic show right out of the gate with Triple Threat: Bernstein, Gershwin, and Mussorgsky.

Harada will bookend the Philharmonic’s eleventh season while he integrates himself into the new role, with plans for full involvement starting with the 12th season.

Ahead of the season opener, taking place Sat., Sep. 14 at the Lucas Theatre, we spoke to Harada about what to expect.

How has it been so far getting ready for the opening of the season?

Harada: It’s been going great! The excitement is there naturally for the new season, and I feel like I’m the added plus that I’m coming in as the new Music & Artistic Director. It worked out that I can do two concerts—the season opener, and the concert in May; the bookends of the season. Just to give a taste of what it will be like when I take over the full position next season, in the fall of 2020.

This show is a really diverse and special way to open the season!

Harada: This program is very, very colorful. It really tells a story. It starts with the “Candide: Overture,” one of Bernstein’s greatest operettas. It just has this really strong beginning—it’s fun, it’s very humorous in the middle, and it uses the orchestra to its full capacity. It’s just a great start for anything. I think the crowd will enjoy it.

Following that we’re going to another American composer who Bernstein was very much influenced by: George Gershwin. The most quintessential American composer. Without him, we don’t have a lot of the music we have now. He had the guts to bring jazz as a medium for the orchestra setting.

What’s amazing about Gershwin is that the melodies are so memorable. If you hear a Gershwin melody, you know it’s George Gershwin. Or if you heard it and didn’t know it was Gershwin, you’d say, “Oh, I’ve heard that before!”


Harada: We’re doing “Concerto in F,” which has three movements that are filled with just unbelievable colors. It’s a tip of the hat to Ravel’s “Piano Concerto,” very much in the language of the American jazz of that era. It’ll be performed by Ian Parker, a Canadian pianist making his debut with the Savannah Philharmonic.

Gershwin had major respect for Ravel, and so we’re doing Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition,” which is orchestrated by Ravel. There’s very much a common denominator here. “Pictures At An Exhibition” was actually just written for piano and not for orchestra, but Ravel came in and orchestrated, and added his flavor to this piano piece. So in the first half we have a piano concerto, and in the second half we have a piano piece that became an orchestra piece.

Tell me more about your involvement this season. You’ll be fully integrated by the 12th season?

Harada: Right, so I’m doing the season opener and finale. But, the community will see me throughout the year because what I’m doing throughout the year is trying to get to know Savannah more.

I have to understand the city, and I need to understand what this orchestra has done in the past. And what people are hungry for this orchestra to do. I need to meet the civic leaders, and visit towns outside of Savannah proper to see if there’s a dire need for classical music out there.

Those kind of things, I’m just leading and being creative. I have my team here trying to come up with a great season, which will be announced in the Spring.

I’d imagine you would have to really get a feel for what audiences are looking for here, and it makes sense that that would take time and would be different from city to city.

Harada: Definitely. Before I even came and conducted here, from a consumer standpoint, Savannah was a vacation town. It was a place where close to 13 million people come annually.

I did my undergrad and masters at Mercer University in Macon, so I know Georgia. But even then, Savannah to me was somewhere you go for the weekend, do the downtown thing and hit the clubs and then go back home.

Now that I’m much more invested in this community, the fun process is creating concerts that cater towards people who live here and call Savannah home.

What does this community want from an orchestra? Now that I’ve been in Savannah for a few days, I’m meeting people and understanding what the arts like is like—from SCAD to the Savannah Theater, to the Lucas Theater, to the Equinox Orchestra.

What I need to do as an arts leader, is figure out what the niche is and find out why people of Savannah would want to come to the symphony. And to make sure that we do concerts that tell the story of Savannah.