Bill DeYoung / April 22, 2014
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It’s a pivotal moment for Peter Shannon and the Savannah Philharmonic. As the orchestra prepares to close out its fifth season—fittingly with Mahler’s weighty Symphony No. 5—they’re moving it into a larger venue, the 2,200-seat Johnny Mercer Theatre.
And Shannon, who recently became a U.S. citizen along with his wife, Quynh, has taken a second job.
You read that right. On April 10, Shannon was announced as the artistic director and conductor of the Jackson Symphony in western Tennessee.
Fear not, Savannah, our Irish superman isn’t leaving town. At 45, he says, he went looking for an additional gig to fulfill himself both artistically (studying, learning and juggling two different and quite complicated seasons of music) and professionally (he and Quynh are the parents of two small children).
Shannon has been conducting for 20 years, and wants to realize what he calls his earning potential.
“Most good conductors have two, sometimes three orchestras that they would be an artistic director of,” Shannon explains. “Some trans-Atlantic. Some trans-Pacific. I would also be open to having an orchestra in Europe, because I’m European. But it’s very, very hard on the body. When this job came up in Jackson, it’s a little bit smaller than Savannah, but it has all the working bolts.”
When Shannon arrived in Savannah in 2007, the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus was in an embryonic stage. With the 52-year-old Jackson organization, he says, “The support group is already there. Not like when I came to Savannah, where I had to more or less build everything up myself. I don’t have that workload in Jackson.”
Shannon is also deeply interested in music education and community outreach, and Jackson maintains a fully-functioning youth orchestra. He likes that.
“So it’s well manageable for me to be the artistic director, and conduct all the concerts there,” he says. “And they have more or less the same schedule as Savannah, about once a month.
“I said to Savannah, if you want to keep me, you’re going to have to allow me to work. And they really did want me to look for other opportunities. It was a very conscious decision on my part—“I’m going to apply for smaller orchestras that I think I can do well.”
He insists this change is not the overture to any sort of full departure from Savannah. “I think it’s the opposite,” Shannon says emphatically.
“Had I not, in the next couple of years, managed to secure a smaller orchestra, I probably would be leaving to a bigger orchestra. This basically allows me to achieve my artistic potential, to conduct more, to learn more music, to be able to have new experiences.”
Although he’ll have to keep an apartment in Tennessee, Savannah is, and will remain, his home.
So, how will this work? “Really, it’s a one hand washes the other kind of thing,” Shannon says. “This allows me to do repertoire that I can use in Jackson, and vice versa. They’ve got a massive library, and they can access a lot of stuff. And the staff are very experienced and knowledgeable.
“There’s going to have to be some give-and-take in the scheduling, but as regards the repertoire it really is wonderful to do a concert in Savannah, and then be able to transport it to Jackson. But I won’t be doing concert-for-concert, a carbon copy.”
Indeed, the April 26 Savannah Philharmonic season-closer does not appear on the Jackson Symphony’s concert list. The first half will feature the conductor’s wife, concert pianist Quynh Shannon, as a soloist on Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. She is a professor of music at Savannah State University.
And then there’s Mahler’s massive 5th. “I’ve heard it said that Mahler was a musician of extremes,” Shannon enthuses. “It’s very happy, it’s very sad, it’s very loud, it’s very soft. Lots of verys! Just everything to the nth degree.
“One moment you’re in the depths of depravity and depression, and two minutes later you’re at the absolute height of spirituality, pushing towards transcendence. It’s just unbelievable. He has a way of absolutely ripping your heart out, and next thing you know you’re in Heaven.”
Nearly every Savannah Philharmonic concert in the Lucas Theatre has sold out; that’s one reason this one’s been moved to the Mercer (more seats). But it’s also the largest group of musicians the orchestra has used in its five years (86 pieces).
“We could do it in the Lucas, but it would be very tight,” Shannon says, “And it will come across better in the Johnny Mercer.”