“I need you to do this for me,” bellows Peter Shannon to his musicians, as the artistic director and conductor of The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus for more than a decade. Peter is part teacher, philosopher, and maestro as he directs his league of extraordinary musicians to deliver best-in-class performances in the Lowcountry and Coastal Georgia. His musicians are more than happy to oblige—this is an agreement between maestro and the players. For 20 minutes of orchestral bliss, Peter and his nationally acclaimed ensemble will turn more than 300 pages of sheet music as they perform Beethoven’s Immortal Ninth.
Peter, while born in Edinburgh, Scotland, is a true Irishman. He began his musical education as a choir boy in his native city of Cork, Ireland. His father, a physician, and his mother, the matriarch of the family, gave Peter and his five siblings the motivation to pursue academics and sports but more importantly—an appreciation and affinity for music and the arts.
Anyone who has ever had the pleasure to attend a proper symphony will agree that it’s a formal affair—white tie and tails for the musicians and maestro. Tonight is no exception, Peter is wearing a dapper set of tails and bow tie as he flutters his baton around with a magical intensity pulling in the audience.
Savannah is very fortunate to have such an accomplished maestro in its backyard, but the journey here was a circuitous one for Peter. It is an epic tale that spans four countries before landing in Savannah like so many Irishman before him.
World travel aside, becoming a conductor wasn’t a direct path for Peter; it was part of the creative journey that many musicians follow while honing their craft. “Conducting is something you pick up after you master an instrument,” said Peter. “And mine was my voice.” Peter had the gifts of pitch and voice along with the strong desire to fine-tune his instrument. At age 17 Peter relocated to Dublin, Ireland where he performed professionally as a baritone in the National Chamber Choir—he also shared his gifts in the role of church organist.
Peter’s journey to becoming a world-renowned maestro was a storied one, but it was not a path he walked alone. One of his early role models and mentors was Andrew Padmore, the once conductor of The Saint Fin Barres Cathedral Choir in Cork, where Peter sung soprano. He was nearly nine years old at the time and reflects on the tremendous respect and admiration he had for maestro Padmore’s discipline, education, and culture, and so the seed for orchestral conducting was planted.
As a bachelor of music student at University College Dublin, and while singing baritone in the National Chamber Choir, Peter began studying the art of conducting under Irish conductor Colman Pearce. A quick scan of Pearce’s wiki further illustrates the caliber of mentors that surrounded Peter on his journey.
The next pivotal step in Peter’s conducting journey would require a move. If one were inclined to live out a life’s dream to train and become a sherpa for Himalayan expeditions, you’d expect to move to Kathmandu. But if one were inclined to pursue the pinnacle of orchestral conducting, that would require a move to Weimar, Germany, considered the epicenter of orchestral conducting. And so, that is what Peter did.
In Germany, he began postgraduate studies in Weimar at the Franz Liszt Hochschule für Musik, founded by the great pianist and composer Franz Liszt. A second postgraduate degree at the Karlsruhe Hochschule für Musik earned Peter the highest possible grade awarded. Peter had the summit of his craft in sight.
THE LUCK OF THE IRISH
With a sincere and casually-deliberate tone, Peter also credits a bit of good luck opening doors for his opportunities. As a young conductor in “Dirigenten Forum”— part of the German Arts Council whose function it is to sponsor an especially talented group of up-and-coming conductors—Peter conducted orchestras such as the Göttingen Philharmoniker, Baden-Baden Philharmonie, Thüringen Philharmonie, Jena Philharmonie, Halle Philharmonisches Orchester, and Rheinische Philharmonie, to name a few.
Following the tradition of Bach at Leipzig University, Peter was appointed Conductor of the Collegium Musicum at Heidelberg. He was 26 when he took the podium at the orchestra of the oldest university in Germany. There he remained conductor for a decade during which time he conducted The Irish National Symphony orchestra and orchestras in France, Poland, Norway, and Hungary.
PLAYING THE PART
Peter’s enthusiasm for his craft is striking. Each performance requires more than six months of study and mastery of thousands of pages of sheet music, section by section—even the triangle. There is a science in creating this level of art.
But the most interesting part of Peter’s creative process is what he described as, “playing the part of the composer.” As part of his personal preparation and development, Peter will research and study the composer and will ultimately attempt to assume his or her life, character and persona, getting inside his or her head to become one with his or her genius, similar to Hollywood’s elite preparing for a character role.
COMING TO AMERICA
The lure of Savannah and the United States was perfect for the maestro’s trajectory. Peter knew that coming to this part of Lowcountry and Coastal Georgia to rebuild a choir and develop a successful and solvent Philharmonic orchestra and chorus was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Peter’s father encouraged him to embrace this important step of his journey and thus he added a trans-Atlantic crossing to the map of his musical life.
Now making a name for himself on American soil for the first time, one critic described the Irish conductor as a “juggernaut on stage,” and compared his Philharmonic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to that of being at a rock concert. The opening fifths were like a jolt of lighting that lifted you from the seat. And when the operatic chorus charge folded into the music towards the end of the arrangement with fortissimo, it punctuated the performance with an exclamation point (perhaps two).
Peter maintains that Ireland and the United States have long had a cordial relationship— especially in Savannah where Irish immigrants were among the first European settlers of the new colony in 1734. “We have a natural affinity and romanticism with our rich heritage in Savannah,” said Peter. The United States Government and the American Federation of Musicians have opened their arms to Peter by officially recognizing him as an individual of extraordinary ability.
With a celebrated Irish heritage, the mother of all St. Patrick’s Day parades, an active and dutiful Hibernian Society, authentic Irish pubs and the Savannah Shamrock Rugby team, it should come as no surprise that Irishman Peter Shannon feels at home in the Hostess City of the South.