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‘Doing all of it’? Savannah and the performing arts

Elegant Victorian villas and gaslit streets lined with Live Oaks draped with Spanish Moss – downtown Savannah is as beautiful as the travel literature leads you to expect.

Savannah, established by philanthropist Sir James Oglethorpe in 1733, was intended to be safe up on its bluff, a functional British bulwark against Spanish Florida and French Louisiana, and downtown is still shaped by Oglethorpe’s grid pattern around squares. Echoes of Savannah’s history rebound. It’s in the Deep South (Georgia) so there are memorials ‘to our Confederate dead’, houses where Confederate heroes, like Jefferson Davis (the Confederate president), or Robert E. Lee, once slept.

Savannah is a smallish city – 130,000 in the downtown, 300,000 in the metro area. 55% of the metro population is African-American. There are not many Hispanics, even so close to Florida (about two hours away by car). But there’s a significant Jewish population, which goes back to the idealistic Oglethorpe who permitted Jews, Lutheran Salzburgers and other persecuted groups to settle in the colony.

It is atmospheric – in summer the city languishes in the humidity – and supposedly haunted. I was told that the CVS downtown is the only one of these pharmacies in the US to close at sundown because the staff won’t work after dark. But Savannah is mostly celebrated for its visual beauty. Like most amenable US cities it’s a university town, but SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design (which seems to own and to have renovated a building on every block) specializes in visual arts, illustration, photography, fashion, web design…

How does Savannah sound? Church bells constantly ring. In December the streets pop to the sounds of acorns dropping on pavements or crunching underfoot. But despite the fact that Lowell Mason (whose hymn ‘Watchman’ is quoted in Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony) spent his early adulthood in Savannah, or that Savannah is the birthplace of lyricist Johnny Mercer, until recently you wouldn’t have gone to Savannah for the performing arts. In two weeks I spent in the city in March, however, I got a pretty impressive sense of how much musical activity there can be in even a small US city.

First of all, Savannah is one community that has gone to the trouble of re-establishing an orchestra after a pretty spectacular collapse.  I spoke to David Pratt, the Executive Director, an Australian who formerly worked at the Sydney Symphony.

‘The Symphony falling over [in 2003] rocked the city to its core,’ he says. ‘Every business was involved. And they lost a lot.’ David explains that the new Philharmonic grew out of the chorus that had been part of the Symphony when it went under. After the dust settled, the singers who were formerly attached to the Symphony wanted to keep singing. They found an artistic director in Peter Shannon, an Irishman who had spent ten years conducting the Collegium Musicum orchestra in Heidelberg Germany, and in late 2007, Peter decided the singers would do a concert with orchestra. So he drew musicians from all over the southeast (Jacksonville, Charleston, Atlanta, Columbia) and got such a good response that they did it again, and then the board of the choral society said, ‘Maybe it’s time to look at forming a new orchestra,’ The orchestra functions now on a per call basis, but players are kept in their chairs as much as possible to foster the sense of regular ensemble. But how hard is it to re-establish an orchestra where government support is ‘zip’. How do you bring the donors back?

‘Show them the financials, the 990 tax forms that we have to send in,’ says David, who was brought in as Executive Director, once the orchestra was put on a more permanent footing. ‘And they can see them online. It’s also getting potential donors into a performance and seeing a 1200-seat theatre that’s full. Then we can at least get them to start coming again. They’ll buy tickets or they’ll start at a very low level, but these are people who used to give you know $50,000, $25,000, $10,000. Some will never ever come back. They’ve said to my face: “Absolutely not interested in giving to an orchestra ever again.” I accept that.’

With Savannah’s demography, a population that is 55% African-American, does the Savannah Philharmonic worry about outreach?

‘You know, it’s an interesting mix of people. Savannah’s changed a lot over the years. Once upon a time, pre-SCAD, Savannah was a very closed community. If you came here as an outsider, you would never break in.’ This is the Savannah John Berendt described in his best-seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  ‘And there’s still, to some degree, a little of that,’ says David. ‘If I was a Yankee, it could be a problem, but two things have had an influence. The movie of Midnight put Savannah on the map for tourism, the film more than the book. Two: SCAD has revitalized downtown. You talk to people who were here in the 80s, this entire street [Broughton Street, the main street] was boarded up.’

As for outreach, ‘We’ve done bits and pieces. We’ve done this initiative with the Anderson Cancer Institute. And that’s come out of Peter’s love for music and its role in integrated medicine.  I did some other things with what are called under-served communities here. Second Harvest runs an incredible program, 44 kids’ cafes, essentially after-school programs that run for two or three hours. It’s the only meal these kids get every day. The director of the program said to me, “Most of these kids have never even eaten a McDonalds because their families can’t afford it.” And Second Harvest has a cultural component. So we had musicians come in and play and interact with these kids – a presence every week. And that starts to build a profile with the community.’

David also lists co-pros with Savannah State University, a predominantly African-American institution and participation in ‘two great programs in city’: Bravo (it’s an acronym standing for Black youth Reaching out Vocal and Orchestral music) and Sonata: ‘They fund private music lessons for African-American kids who cannot otherwise afford them.’

‘But most of my focus is to build financial stability. And the only way I can do that is to make sure all our concerts are sold out, that we are raising money, and that we’re focused on funding our season, with building a reserve.’ David talks about two areas where there may be potential for philanthropic support – Skidaway Island, a gated community which has attracted successful people from the Midwest and Northeast who retired to Savannah to live in a warmer climate. Also Bluffton, 30 minutes away in South Carolina, halfway between Savannah and Hilton Head where there’s another orchestra. ‘Most of my time goes into researching and cultivating individuals and looking for these sorts of pockets of communities,’ he concludes.

In Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil much was made of voodoo. There were scenes of the sorceress Minerva paddling through ‘gator infested swamps to sprinkle rooster blood on a grave and pacify its dead resident. And I realize that here on the Atlantic seaboard there can be quite a profound sense of Africa to the southeast. It’s a counterbalance to the Confederate ‘whiteness’.

Given that, it’s worth noting that Savannah hosts one of the best World Music festivals anywhere in the world. The Festival’s main focus is on the 17 days each Spring where you can catch a smorgasbord of music ranging from some of the very best jazz, Malian musicians from Africa, Iranians, chamber music – all compressed into the small space of walkable downtown Savannah.

I went to Savannah in March deliberately to catch this festival. On one typical day I heard the Sweet Singing Harmony Harmoneers, followed by the Takacs Quartet playing Beethoven and Schubert, and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at the Trustees Theater. Two days later I squeezed in the McIntosh County Shouters, Menachem Pressler playing Dvořàk with Daniel Hope and Friends, and Ruthie Foster and The Campbell Brothers.

The Festival is run by Rob Gibson, a native Georgian. I spoke to him and Communications and Operations Director, Ryan McMaken after coming back from a concert of the McIntosh County Shouters, a group that still practises a form of communal singing and dancing that harks back to slave days on the Georgia coast and predates gospel.

Gibson reckons he’s not doing anything different than he did 32 years ago when he programmed the radio station at University of Georgia. ‘On WUOG we had the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Camerata, the Metropolitan Opera. We had punk rock because it was the height of the Sex Pistols. We had Bob Marley and the Wailers. I had an African music program, then an avant-garde classical program called A Year from Monday after John Cage’s book. So I’ve always had a broad interest in what I would call the musical arts. It’s just not very often that you get to put that inside of a festival.’

The Festival’s got an impressive chamber music component curated by violinist, Daniel Hope. One of the great advantages of hearing chamber music in Savannah is sitting in the 250-seat Telfair Academy (deeded to the city by philanthropist, Mary Telfair) listening to the Dumky Trio and sitting close enough to enjoy the drama of eye contact between players; then walking to the next concert through streets that look essentially unchanged since Dvořàk was composing. (When Robert Redford filmed The Conspirator, all they did was take the parking meters out of Barnard Street and fill it with dirt and, hey presto!, it was Washington, 1865.)

But it’s the mix of programs that really makes the Savannah Music Festival stand out. Gibson is renowned for ‘double bills’, combinations of music that you wouldn’t normally expect to hear together and which make converts of people who would not formerly have listened to another genre. Says Ryan McMaken:  Rob put ngoni (lute) player Bassekou Kouyate on a double bill with Bill Frisell an American jazz player. A lot of people knew Bill and came out for that and were floored the first night by Bassekou Kouyate.’

I myself was impressed by a joint concert given by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans and the Dell McCoury Band, a bluegrass group. This wasn’t just a double bill. It was a collaboration, and, on paper, you mightn’t expect it to work. Except that it did. Half the listeners clapped on the beat, the other half off, but even McCoury now prefers some of his songs ‘with horns’.

Quality and the fact that it has to be ‘live’ music, are Gibson’s non-negotiables. He mentions that if you go to the Spoleto Festival up the road in Charleston, South Carolina, you might see the Shen Wei Dance Company ‘comin’ out of New York but they’re doing the tape and I don’t do tape.’

The SMF is marketed consciously to both locals and ‘out-of-towners’, two different campaigns. With 36% of the people in 2011 coming from more than 200 miles away, staying an average of four and a half days and spending an average of $452 per day, it’s important to reach the non-locals. But there is also a huge element of local pride in presenting music of the South. ‘Gospel grew up in Georgia’, said Gibson before one of the concerts, and later, to me: ‘the indigenous musics that come out of the United States, Blues, Gospel, Country and Western, Zydeco, Cajun and Tex-Mex, all of them are Southern.’

They’re also highly involving. At the McIntosh County Shouters concert I attended, one of the singers stepped forward and sang , ‘Good Lord in Heaven, I know I’ve been changed,’ and the woman at the next table joined in, the guy behind me joined in hands raised. I thought, ‘This is music that gets people where they live. They believe they’re going to be raptured up.’

But opera, too, deals with the basics of life – with love, death… How does opera fare in Savannah? There is no resident company. Once again, I was happy to have found myself in Savannah this March.

Since 2001, the legendary Verdi baritone, Sherrill Milnes has run a singer development program called the VOICExperience (Vocal and Operatic Intensive Creative Experience) with his wife, Maria Zouves. It’s based in Tampa Florida where Milnes retired to, but does workshops in New York City and Chicago. The purpose of the ‘Experience’, in the words of its website, is to advance singers in their careers by giving them the highest level of educators while creating outreach of opera and musical theatre to the communities of the world. Programs include ‘Opera as Drama’, working on operas from the perspective of the text, ‘Generation X’, an intensive week of classes, private coaching, masterclasses and audition preparation for the young singer, and the ‘Voice Workshop’ to help career beginners refine their craft.  This year, Milnes and Zouves brought the Voice Workshop to Savannah and Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, 50 miles inland. Over a week, 17 young professional singers had the opportunity to study with Milnes, Zouves and former Metropolitan star, Diana Soviero before presenting their accomplishments in two public concerts at the end of the week.

Milnes and Zouves have been considering moving to Savannah, and this was a test run to see if the community support was there for operatic activity. The idea in locating the workshop and presentations in Savannah and Statesboro, was to place the results in front of Savannahians who have the wherewithal to support opera, in the hope that they might be inspired to grab the opportunity. As was explained to me, you have to be careful in launching anything in Savannah. Savannahians have a profound sense of place and do not need to be told what they lack. Savannah even rejected the composer Gian-Carlo Menotti when he was looking for a home for his Spoleto Festival, and he went instead to Charleston.

Milnes and Zouves were therefore approaching this prospect with the hope that influential locals would come forward and say, ‘Hey, let’s do more of this,’ Nothing big deal, just an incremental step towards having more regular operatic activity.

At the end of the week the VOICExperience put on a concert in Christ Church, followed by a repeat out at Georgia Southern. In a sense the concert was a showcase of arias and ensembles that the particpants had worked on in the previous few days, but Zouves has a background as an opera director, and the excerpts were shaped and staged in such a way as to give the emotional impression of an operatic trajectory. The audience in Christ Church loved it, and there was the prospect of some donations.

The VOICExperience has since put on another concert in June, and Zouves and Milnes intend to bring South Carolina-born composer Carlisle Floyd [composer of Of Mice and Men and Susannah] to Savannah in August. Now is crunch time to know if the city is ready for more permanent operatic activity.

Will Savannah end up with an opera company anytime soon? Is it big enough? That is still an open question but a Savannahian company’s catchment would be three or four states wide and vocal music is a seedbed for other musical activity in the community. The orchestra was resurrected by people who wanted to keep singing.

I went with VOICExperience singers, Rebecca Flaherty and Jessica Best to a demonstration they gave at the Savannah Arts Academy, a high school dedicated to the arts, on Washington Avenue. What struck me most was student response at the end of the session. Four boys jumped up to reciprocate and what did they sing? Barbershop quartets.

‘There’s a real resurgence of a capella male singing in America,’ whispered the guy standing next to me, David Starkey, General and Artistic Director of Asheville Lyric Opera in North Carolina, who had driven the five hours from the mountains of North Carolina to attend the VOICExperience concerts and see if there were any synergies here for other opera companies in the South. Then all the students the students gathered around us in a circle and sang the Lutkin Benediction: ‘the Lord bless you and keep you’. It was a moving moment. ‘That’s America for you,’ said Starkey. ‘We don’t just do some of it; we do all of it.’

That kind of explains how a city of 130,000 can have so much going on. Savannah can tout Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Treasure Island (yes, it figures in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic) and Forrest Gump. Of course, it can’t boast Porgy and Bess – that’s rival city Charleston’s honour – but perhaps that doesn’t matter. Look how much was going on in the two weeks I was there in March – and that in a city not noted for its performing arts.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2012