WHILE SAVANNAH DANSE THEATRE has been performing The Nutcracker in Savannah with a live orchestra for several years, this edition marks the first time the music will be under the baton of maestro Peter Shannon of the Savannah Philharmonic and Savannah Choral Society.
Shannon and company have made waves in the local arts scene the past year with a number of well-received and well-attended operas and concerts. SDT’s Artistic Director Suzanne Braddy says the collaboration was a natural next step for both artists.
“I worked with Peter during the Savannah Choral Society’s production of La Traviata,” says Braddy. “We really worked well together and he was very supportive. I appreciate his ‘charge ahead’ attitude and I felt like he would be a great fit for our Nutcracker.”
Shannon is equally effusive in his praise for Braddy, who he praises as a key, but largely unsung, proponent of classical music in Savannah.
“I think what Sue Braddy has done, and this really should be acknowledged, is she’s the one who first brought orchestral music back to Savannah when the symphony went under,” Shannon maintains.
“She was the one who said, ‘I’m going to bring that orchestra back and I’m going to use it.’ So she gets a lot of credit for that, and if I can be involved and I can support that in some way, then I’m all on for it.”
Previous live orchestras at SDT Nutcrackers have been conducted by Mary Woodmansee-Green of the Hilton Head Orchestra. Shannon says despite his already-busy music season — the Philharmonic and Choral Society is performing The Merry Widow in January — he’s been able to find time to work with Braddy in bringing Tchaikovsky’s beloved Nutcracker score to life.
“For the last ten years with my orchestra in Heidelberg, doing a concert once a month, or even more often, is what I’m used to,” says the gregarious Irishman.
“But this is really something I’m looking forward to doing. I’ve never done The Nutcracker before, and it’s actually quite a lot of music, which I’m starting to realize now (laughs). The logistics of putting this together are quite enormous,” he says.
Accompanied by what Shannon calls a “pick-up orchestra” of musicians largely drawn from the ranks of the Philharmonic — but not limited to them — Savannah Danse Theatre will perform a slightly more contemporary version, set in Savannah in 1945.
“Because I set the Nutcracker in Savannah, I wanted set it in a time that was distinctly American,” Braddy says. “1945 was such a special in time this country — a time of celebration and homecoming with the end of World War II, and it seems like a time when Savannah thrived within its small community, with street cars buzzing, movie houses packed, Broughton Street bustling and Leopold’s Ice Cream as a joyous indulgence.”
Almost as if to answer the unspoken, ubiquitous question, “How is this Nutcracker different from all the rest?” Shannon says it’s no contest.
“God, there’s a huge difference. That other Nutcracker comes in from Columbia, but nobody mentions that it’s not with a live orchestra. It’s like the difference between singing with a live band onstage in a jazz club, or doing karaoke!” he says.
“There’s a great link when the whole orchestra is accompanying the dancers onstage. There’s no divide where the stage meets that pit. It’s linking that space. When you use playback music, you’re so regimented.”
Braddy agrees, saying “When we perform with a live orchestra, we all push ourselves further to produce the highest quality performance we can.”
Shannon says there’s no substitute for live music, especially in a world where artistic spontaneity is increasingly rare.
“Our ears are so adjusted to perfection through CDs, watching DVDs, everything is perfection, perfection, perfection. If something goes wrong, it’s ‘Aaaah! He played a wrong note!’” Shannon says.
“I don’t know any brilliant musician who doesn’t screw up in a concert. It happens all the time,” he says. “But we’re so honed in on that sense of perfection that we end up letting a wrong note spoil a concert. And that’s just not the way it works.”
That said, Shannon is known for his notoriously high standards. While several principal dancers in SDT’s The Nutcracker in Savannah are professionals, the bulk of the dancers will be amateurs. How will Shannon react?
“When you’re working with amateurs in a sense you have to be more professional. The organization, everything has to be very, very tight. You give them very strict guidelines,” he says.
“I don’t have any say about what happens onstage, but I trust Sue, and I trust whatever she does, even if it’s not perfect. In some ways that’s part of my life too, because my chorus that sang the Mozart, they’re amateurs as well. You have to trust them to do their best.”
Shannon says that despite a school of thought among some classical musicians that Tchaikovsky is somewhat ham-handed as a composer, he has a devoted and growing respect for the composer and his impact.
“Tchaikovsky is a huge, huge influence in music. Maybe because he’s so popular people tend to frown on it. I certainly did when I was younger. I thought it was this sugary, sweet music, all nice flowing melodies and cool instrumentation,” recalls Shannon.
“But it was when I conducted his Symphony Number Six, the one that he wrote more or less on his deathbed, that I really found my way into Tchaikovsky. There’s a lot of history too – he was homosexual, and couldn’t express that of course in Russia. So a lot of the man is reflected in his music. You really find a way into the soul of the composer,” he says.
“Tchaikovksy was someone who could wear his heart on his sleeve, and that’s something that I didn’t like as a young conductor. And now I have absolutely no problem with that at all,” says Shannon.
“The genius in his music is omnipresent. Almost every melody in this Nutcracker is absolutely beautiful. Hopefully we can do it justice.” cs
The Nutcracker in SavannahWhere: Lucas Theatre
When: Sat., Dec. 13, 2 p.m., Candy Cane Matinee, meet the cast (no orchestra);
Sat., Dec. 13, 8 p.m., with Savannah Danse Theatre Orchestra, Peter Shannon conducting
Info: lucastheatre.com, 912/525-5050