Four years ago, when Peter Shannon was hired as music director and conductor for the Savannah Philharmonic Chorus, the very first thing he did was build a symphony orchestra, piece by delicate piece.
“My modus operandi,” Shannon explains, “was to show people in the community that we can do basically anything. So in my first year we had a huge oratorio, we had a symphonic concert, we had a rock and pop concert and we had an opera. To show that we were versatile.
“And people just loved that rock and pop concert. And quite honestly, it’s not my music, but they loved it. It shocked me.”
At the moment, Shannon’s got his head in a cloud of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn — he’s working on the arrangements for the next symphony concert, in late May.
First, though, a bit of fun.
The chorus, but not the orchestra, will be onstage for Saturday’s Rockin’ With the Phil — yes, this is the spring pops concert — and they’ll be accompanied by a rock ‘n’ roll band which includes Shannon himself on piano.
From tunes by Queen (“We Will Rock You” opens the concert, and the odd and complex “Bohemian Rhapsody” is in there too) to a Beach Boys medley, the incongruities are everywhere.
The acclaimed Savannah State University Chorus is also on Saturday’s bill, performing Motown and soul classics.
According to Shannon, however, good music transcends time, taste — and style.
“I think a lot of people know me, that my standards are very, very high,” he says.
“The bottom line is we wouldn’t be doing this concert if I was up there onstage going ‘This isn’t good. This is 80 people trying to be cool.’ It can’t look that way, that’s the way we approached this. It’s got to be convincing to ourselves before it can be convincing to somebody else. We’ve really got to think ‘This is bloody good.’
“We’re not going to be Queen, the Beach Boys or Abba or Coldplay. We’re going to do a Savannah Philharmonic version of it that I can definitely stand behind.”
Not that choosing the songs, and programming the concert, has been a piece of cake.
“This is a concert that’s just very busy — it’s rock song after rock song, two to three minutes each,” Shannon explains. “To make the gestalt so that you have a high at the beginning, and a high at the end, maybe a high in the middle, and find the link pieces, it’s annoyingly difficult! And there’s a real art to that. It’s tough to program that. I’m getting better at it.”
The choral arrangements had to be ordered online, and even then, there was no guarantee that they would be a perfect fit for the Savannah Philharmonic — or, for that matter, with the chorus’ uber–picky musical director, who spent a decade conducting the Collegium Musicum Orchestra in Heidelberg, Germany.
“There are hundreds of great rock and pop songs out there,” says Shannon, “but some of the versions arranged for chorus, you get the arrangements and you go ‘What was this person thinking?’
“As a professional conductor, I don’t even have to play it on the piano – I look at it and I know it’s just not going to work. The harmonies aren’t there; it’s not effective enough.”
He feels great about what he and the chorus are doing Saturday in the Lucas Theatre.
Shannon’s learning curve now includes a deeper appreciation of so–called lightweight music. He understands how Robbie Williams’ “Angel” and Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” can move people, in much the same way as a piece by Brahms or Mozart.
“There’s something more intrinsic about it,” he declares, “something more holistic about music. It’s really about discovering yourself. If you use it as a correct tool, you can get into your soul, you can understand what kind of person you are.
“For me, it’s ‘Is there a real conviction in the way I’m bringing this across – even though I’m not Freddie Mercury?’ CS
Savannah Philharmonic Chorus
Rockin’ With the Phil
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 8 p.m. Saturday, April 23
Tickets: $15–$50 at savannahphilharmonic.org