The Savannah Philharmonic’s Christmas concert sold out in 2009, and the year before that.
So turning the 2010 show into a two–night–stand was something of a no–brainer for the Phil’s board, and artistic director Peter Shannon.
The thing is, no–brainers have been in short supply, as the organization is barely two years old, and still trying valiantly to explain to Savannahians that it’s not the bad old Savannah Symphony, which fell apart under mounting financial and managerial problems.
That experience, Shannon believes, left a bad taste in people’s mouths, and has kept potential Phil–boosters away from more than a few of his concerts.
The Christmas show, which features the full choir doing excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, plus classic holiday music, is what’s called in the entertainment business a cash cow: a performance one can always count on to bring in the big crowds.
David Pratt was hired in October as the Savannah Philharmonic’s very first executive director. Born and raised in Australia, the 46–year–old Pratt went to school in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. He did his post–graduate work in business administration, and eventually entered the movie business – rather, the business of movies. Music, cinema and sports have always fascinated him.
Relocating to Los Angeles in 1996, Pratt ran the Australian government’s American film liaison office. Five years later, he founded Australians in Film, an organization to showcase, promote and foster working relations between Aussies and Americans. He also added a strong music component.
Pratt’s forte is creating a bond between the artistic canvas and those who create it, and the commercial world that supports and encourages it. Working closely with Shannon, he is working out new strategies for raising – and sustaining – the Savannah Phil’s profile, reputation and stature in the community.
These days, you can’t really have art without business.
On leaving Australians In Film in 2005:
“Like all good Australians do, I decided ‘I’m done. I’ve had enough, I’ve run the film commission for all these years. I’m putting everything in storage and I’m going to Spain.’ It was 2005. My American friends said ‘Are you insane? You’re leaving a phenomenal job.’ But I was bored. I didn’t want to do it forever. Everything I wanted to do when I started the job, I did. All done. I had some money saved, so I went to live in Barcelona for a year. I loved the city, loved the food. The people were a bit mad. My plan was to come back to the States in a year and look for a job. I was there six months when I seriously hurt my leg in a water–skiing accident, and so I went back home to Australia to heal.”
On life just before Savannah:
“It’s funny, I had a lot of job offers, but they all wanted me to do exactly the same thing I was doing in L.A. I knew I wanted to focus on music. Through some contacts, I got on board with the Vienna Philharmonic on their annual visit to the Sydney Opera House. I planned a bunch of events around the visit of the orchestra. And it was phenomenal. I loved it. And while I was there, I got an offer to run this big chamber music festival in the North Country, in Townsville. I really enjoyed being in that position as a GM; I loved working with the artistic director. Then I got a job with the Sydney Symphony, as the head of commercial programming, basically in charge of everything that’s non–subscription. So I had an artistic component and a business component. I loved it, but I knew I wasn’t going to stay there. I absolutely wanted a full–time job with an orchestra, a performing arts center or a music center of some sort. And not in L.A. Then I programmed two seasons of the G’Day USA Festival, on the West Coast, before I applied for this job.”
On what he faced here:
“I knew I was walking into an organization that was relatively new, that’d had some problems with orchestras in the past in the city. They said there is no staff, there’s some very dedicated volunteers and a phenomenal artistic director that has a groundswell of support in the community. But there’s a lot of challenges. And I was looking for a challenge. I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be a slam–dunk, but let’s give it a shot and see what I can do.”
On the job’s biggest challenge:
“The number–one challenge is fundraising. Absolutely. Apart from being in a tough economic climate, there’s a history here of people giving to a symphony, and then it’s fallen over. There’s a lot of people here who haven’t forgotten about that, which adds an extra challenge. How do you connect with those people?
“Programming plays an important role in that too, and that’s why the relationship with the artistic director’s so important. How do you connect with the next level of donors? There’s certainly a level of professionals in this town who are my age, or younger, who have the capacity to give. How to engage those people, so that they become supporters, or subscribers, is I think the biggest challenge for us.”
On retaining artistic integrity:
“The minute the business side of any organization starts getting too involved in artistic decisions, it’s all over. I think it’s the ability to be clever in your programming ... Peter understands that it’s very important we do the pops–type stuff, to bring in that part of the community that would never come to a classical performance.
“But when Peter did The Dream of Gerontius in October, I remember that a number of board members were absolutely dead–set against that. They said ‘We’ll lose money.’ But I think Peter has an innate ability to understand what will work and what won’t. And how far he can challenge his audiences. And it didn’t sell out, but we exceeded our financial target.”
On the uphill climb:
“We don’t have a subscription base. If an orchestra doesn’t, you’ve got to sell from the ground up. So for each concert, you’ve got to sell a thousand tickets every single time. We’ve got to put stuff in place for next season, where we start building a subscriber base. And that’s going to take some time.
“And I think there’s a fundamental disconnect, to some degree, in this town about ‘What is the Savannah Philharmonic?’ Since I’ve been here, a lot of people I’ve talked to don’t really understand it, or think it’s some kind of quasi–orchestra.
“The fact is, it’s a different business model than previous orchestras.
“But there is a professional working orchestra in this city, that presents a season of eclectic music from September to May. It exists, and it’s committed to stay in this community.”
Christmas With the Philharmonic
Where: Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 222 E. Harris St.
When: At 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 17 and 18
Tickets: $35, $50; $100 (for a family of four)
Contact: (912) 525–5050 or thesavphilharmonic.org