By Leslie Murphy / Photos by Michele Pokrandy and Contributed by the Savannah Philharmonic / As seen in Richmond Hill Reflections Magazine
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June Stratton’s love of classical music, and the emotion and energy she was seeking to convey in the creation of her Movement series [Volume 8, Number 1], was enough to pique my curiosity. In fact, I was led into a quest for more information on the thriving non-profit operation of The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus (The Phil). At the time of my interview with June, last December, she was extremely focused on the commitment she had made to The Phil. Her art would be auctioned at a fundraiser, and a percentage of the proceeds would be her contribution to the organization this year. Countless hours would go into these paintings and planning of the event where they would be sold, just as countless hours go into the preparation of each every performance by The Phil. So much energy is given, by over a hundred volunteers, to this organization; that energy is recognized as the driving force behind the success of what many critics are finding to be a struggling business.
With the 2003 closing of the Savannah Symphony, people doubted the success of another attempt. Great minds came together and a fiscally responsible board of directors was formed to ensure the success of The Phil. The lengths that volunteers and board members go to are extreme and prove that the foundation of this orchestra is solid. We visited the home of board member Rhegan White-Clemm, also a dressage instructor at The Ford Plantation, the morning of the final performance of the 2011-2012 season. Joining us for coffee were Rhegan’s two houseguests. The first was Robbi Kenney, a violinist from Charleston, South Carolina and the stunning subject of June Stratton’s recent painting “Violinist in Blue.” The second was Dr. Danijela Zezelj-Gualdi, a lovely violist from Wilmington, North Carolina. Originally from Croatia, Danijela is a Violin and Viola Professor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Both Robbi and Danijela would be playig with the Philharmonic that evening. “The Phil cannot afford to put every musician up in a hotel. Emails come prior to performances requesting available rooms in our homes,” says Rhegan, exemplifying the determination of the board to keep expenses to a minimum.
“That is not a bad thing,” chimes in Danijela as she smiles in appreciation of the hospitality that was immediately detected from the minute I walked through the doors of the Clemm’s home at The Landings. “This is the first time I have played with The Savannah Philharmonic. This is one of the best orchestras I’ve been playing with. The quality of the leadership and musicians is strong. This is the reason musicians come back; it’s the warmth of the hospitality that hooks you.”
Like most of The Phil’s contracted musicians, Danijela plays for many symphony orchestras, some of which includes Charleston, Augusta, Atlanta, Long Bay and Fayetteville.
As we gathered around the kitchen table with coffee cups in hand, we learned much about the inner workings of an orchestra. “I think at least an hour of each board meeting is spent completely devouring the figures,” says Rhegan. As Chairman of the Special Events Committee, Rhegan must give careful attention to the organization’s financial needs. Keeping it in the black is not easy feat. The Phil has just two full-time employees: Conductor and Artistic Director, Peter Shannon and Executive Director, David Pratt. “Peter Shanon is a very big part of the orchestra being where it is today,” she adds. Starting as Artistic Director of the Savannah Choral Society in 2007, Shannon began slowly adding musical components to the programming. Hiring musicians on an as-needed basis, rather than maintaining full-time contracting is just one way he keeps The Phil more cost effective. With an $800,000 annual budget, management of costs is what keeps this venture thriving. Many others have not succeeded with this and collapsed as a result. “The choir is the volunteer core; they come from all walks of life. They are one hundred voices, mostly local, who do everything. They move chairs, distribute posters, you name it,” says Rhegan. All other roles and responsibilities are filled by a few contracted employees.
“I also produce my own shows,” adds Robbi Kenney. “I know what a privilege it is to play. I would not be here without Mary Catherine.” Mary Catherine Mousourakis is the Orchestra Manager, one of the few sub-contracted employees, who wears a variety of hats in the operations of The Phil. I met her backstage at the closing performance of the 2011-2012 season. Her enthusiasm was real and her demeanor was elegant and determined, just like The Savannah Philharmonic.
The 2012-2013 season opens on September 8th at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts. They will present the enchanting beauty of Rachmaninoff’s most beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 followed by Shostakovich’s powerful Symphony No. 5. It is easy to subscribe online at savannahphilharmonic.org or call The Savannah Box Office at 912.525.5050.
June Stratton’s art auction netted around $8,000, as respectable contribution from a working artist. Her love of music and the energy that surrounds the people involved in The Phil compelled her to help. The energy she is drawn to is real. Join the Movement this Fall! It is sure to add to the richness of your life.