Its Symphony Defunct, Savannah Gets New Chamber Orchestra

Classic Arts News   Its Symphony Defunct, Savannah Gets New Chamber Orchestra
 
More than three years after the Savannah Symphony disbanded, a new professional orchestra is taking shape in the historic Georgia city — with an operating model its organizers hope will let the group be sustainable and fill some of the void left by its predecessor's demise.

The Savannah Sinfonietta and Chamber Players was founded this past summer by William Keith, a university-level band conductor who is the new group's Executive and Artistic Director. His mission was to re-assemble the two dozen musicians from the Savannah Symphony who remained in the area and use them as the core of a new professional resident orchestra.

A set of initial concerts in the spring of 2006 demonstrated to Keith the hunger for live classical performances in Savannah. "Demand just exploded," he told PlaybillArts by telephone. "Once we had secured a venue in the historic district [Trinity United Methodist Church], other churches started calling to ask if we could perform for them as well. Skdaway Island [a nearby coastal resort] invited us; [exurban community] Richmond Hill did as well; the city of Savannah asked if we could play the concerts in the park that the Symphony used to do."

Once the level of demand for concerts became clear, Keith incorporated the Sinfonietta as a non-profit in June and launched its debut season in September. There are five full orchestral programs, five chamber programs and three pops programs, each performed in multiple venues in the region, for a total of over 30 paid performances in the first year.

In launching the new ensemble, Keith had to face an uncomfortable reality: the local philanthropic community was feeling both drained and skeptical in the aftermath of the Savannah Symphony's final struggle against bankruptcy in 2003. So he has established an operating model aimed, as he puts it, "toward minimizing demands on the giving community while maximizing possibilities for artistic impact."

Performing each program on successive evenings both reduces the organization's financial exposure for each individual event and extends the Sinfonietta's reach across the region. (What's more, the venues, generally churches and synagogues, are donating their space for free.) Musicians themselves serve as administrative staff — Keith as executive director and principal conductor, the principal flutist as general manager, the principal bassist as operations manager, and so on. And, thanks to a fee-per-service agreement with the local musicians' union, the Savannah Sinfonietta and Chamber Players can be flexible in size, paying for no more musicians than necessary for any given program.

Consequently, the Sinfonietta is giving its nearly three dozen performances this season on an operating budget less than one-fifth that of the Savannah Symphony in its last year. And its musicians' per-service fee — a base rate of $100, with more for principal players and certain other artists — is the highest in the region after the Atlanta Symphony's. So now professional players from Charleston, Augusta and other southeastern cities are calling Keith to inquire about working in Savannah. That's quite a change from 2003.


For more information on the Savannah Sinfonietta and Chamber Players, visit www.savannahorchestra.org.


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