For the past several months, local fans of fine art music have been awash in opportunities to see and hear it played live.
Between visits by the Jacksonville, Atlanta and Charleston Symphony Orchestras, as well as the Hilton Head Symphony (who’ll perform Mahler’s “Resurrection” with the help of the Savannah Choral Society this Saturday night at the Lucas Theatre), and the newly-formed Southern Georgia Symphony, there are now a surfeit of classical options to choose from.
That wealth of musical riches has not deterred one new group from throwing their hat into the ring, however, and by all accounts, it seems the Savannah Sinfonietta is doing an impressive job of holding their own in a crowded marketplace.
Compared to the well-received Statesboro-based Southern Georgia Symphony, which mixes professional players with standout students from Georgia Southern University’s orchestral program, the Savannah Sinfonietta is a smaller, all-pro outfit that sees itself as a logical (and more manageable) substitute for the defunct Savannah Symphony Orchestra, which shut down ignominiously amid crippling debt roughly half a decade ago.
So far, the Sinfonietta’s game plan —which combines a smaller orchestra with multiple performances in more intimate venues than the old Symphony’s home of the 2,600-seat Johnny Mercer Theatre— seems to be working. They are receiving high marks from local classical music enthusiasts, and their reasonable ticket prices seem to be starting to attract a wider variety of audience members than has been the norm in this area.
In advance of their upcoming trio of concerts based around the work of composer Samuel Barber (including an early piece for string quartet that would later become the basis for his famed Adagio for Strings), Connect spoke to the Sinfonietta’s Executive Artistic Director William Keith for an inside view on the rapid growth and evolution of this promising new organization.
Connect Savannah: When we first spoke a few months back, you said your goal was to become “a flexible, full-service group that can serve niche-markets, and bring a variety of classical music to a variety of neighborhoods.” Are you achieving those goals?
William Keith: I’m pretty comfortable that we’ve been achieving that part of our mission since launching the season several months ago. To date we’ve already programmed over a dozen orchestra and chamber music performances that have encompassed the Historic District, The Landings, Midtown Savannah and the City of Richmond Hill. I think our level of artistry as been superb. There’s a strong sense of ensemble with this group — a lot of shared experience that comes across musically.
Connect Savannah: How many people will make up the Sinfonietta for these shows?
William Keith: For the Barber series we’ll have a chamber orchestra of around twenty-five. Probably four or five of those will be new players we’re adding to the core group to meet specific instrumentation requirements for these pieces.
Connect Savannah: You estimated this group could reach the same number of listeners as the old Savannah Symphony, while incurring operating costs less than 20% of what that (reportedly) bloated organization had to deal with. Has this proven accurate?
William Keith: Partially. From an operating expense standpoint, yes. We are right on budget for our projected hard cost, and have a very accurate gauge of what we’ll need to sustain this professional, per-service orchestra. Audience growth has been a little lighter than hoped, but it’s growing concert by concert. I’m comfortable that as the season progresses we’ll continue to reconnect to our supporters across the region. Plus, to some degree, even though we have artistic connections to the old symphony, we are still “new” and must find a “new audience” like any other group.
Connect Savannah: Why Samuel Barber (and these particular works)?
William Keith: Barber is an amazing 20th century American composer who I believe stands toe-to-toe with Aaron Copland artistically. The interesting thing about Barber is his music has an almost organic quality to it. You notice the incredibly beautiful and powerful music, but it’s much more mystical and veiled as to where some of these wonderful elements came from. I’ve tried to pull selections from across his life as a composer; the String Quartet in B Minor — his student composition that Adagio for Strings was developed from; Cave of the Heart, his commission for Martha Graham that was later developed in the Medea Suite; The Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings, which was his deathbed composition and Knoxville 1915 for Soprano and Orchestra, in which he takes the prose of American poet James Agee and melds it into a tremendously beautiful and haunting ode to childhood memories lost.
Connect Savannah: How much actual rehearsal time has been spent on these shows?
William Keith: Generally, we will have three 2 1/2 hour rehearsals leading into a concert series. These are professionals who come well prepared, so the focus becomes to artistically arrange the ensemble.
Connect Savannah: Have you yourself, or any of these principal players ever performed any of these pieces publicly before?
William Keith: Gosh, that’s a good question. Without polling the players I would imagine that some have played Knoxville 1915 and possibly the String Quartet. I can almost guarantee this will be the first time any of us gets a shot at Cave of the Heart, which is the original 1945 ballet setting for Martha Graham’s Library of Congress Series, or the Canzonetta for Oboe and String. Interestingly, when we ordered Cave of the Heart, the publisher actually had to print a new copy because there are only two other copies in the world - one being performed in England, the other on the West Coast.
Connect Savannah: What is it about Barber’s work that stand out most to you?
William Keith: He has a simply brilliant ability to come up with thematic jewels, paired with a somewhat unique approach to score voicing. The end result is a signature, individualist neo-romantic style — when compared to some of his 20th century peers who were either pulled toward neo-classicalism or fell under the tall musical shadow of Aaron Copland.
Connect Savannah: This show will see three performances over a four-day period: First at Trinity United Methodist; next at Skidaway Island Presbyterian; and finally at the Jewish Education Alliance. Will the performances change to “fit” the rooms?
William Keith: A little, but not a lot. Each space has its own idiosyncrasies from a staging perspective (and also aurally), but that’s just how this approach of taking the concert to the audience works. It’s been nice to play in different spaces and to adjust each presentation for the best result.
Connect Savannah: Does one pay more for a seat that is closer to the musicians?
William Keith: Generally, our tickets go from $30 down to $20, with students for $10. We price the first four rows slightly higher, in recognition of the benefit of proximity to the players. Still, I think $30 or $25 to hear Knoxville when you are sitting fifteen feet from the soloist is amazing. Try that in Atlanta or Jacksonville and let me know what it costs. (Laughs)
Connect Savannah: Considering that other regional symphonies are actively booking shows in Savannah, are you worried about oversaturating the market, and “burning people out” on classical music?
William Keith: I don’t think that’s likely in our case. True, we’re exploring a lot of venues right out of the gate. However, that’s to find what works, what doesn’t, and where our concertgoers will connect most to us. I can’t help but believe that Savannah will support its own resident orchestra. I feel we have the flexibility and the opportunity to try some different things. We’ll make adjustments as to where, when and how much we play until we find our niche as part of this community’s greater artistic needs. I would offer that if your readers feel it’s important for this city to have its own resident orchestra, then there’s probably no better time than now for those patrons and lovers of the arts to come out and support what we’re creating in their midst.
The Savanna Sinfonietta presents: Samuel Barber, A Modern Romantic, featuring his: Cave of The Heart Canzonetta for Obe & Strings; String Quartet in B minor; and Knoxville, 1915 — Thursday, 7:30 pm at Trinity United Methodist Church, Friday, 7:30 pm at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, and Sunday, 3 pm, at the Jewish Education Alliance. Tickets range from $10 to $30, and are on sale now. For more info, call 352-3377, or check www.savannahorchestra.org.