Savannah Philharmonic Begins Eighth Season With a World Premiere Violin Concerto

Linda Sickler
Savannah Morning News

September 01, 2016 — What a splendid way to start a new season. The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus will open its eighth season at the Lucas Theatre with the world premiere of a violin concerto composed by Richard Sortomme. It will be performed by Elmar Oliveira, the only American violinist to win the Gold Medal at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky International Competition.

It was Oliveira who commissioned the concerto. The concert will open with the Overture to La gazza Iadra, or “The Thieving Magpie,” by Rossini, and close with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the Eroica, or “The Heroic.” “Having spent the summer studying, I’m excited to begin the new season and hear all this incredible music that has, until now, only been circling around in my head,” says Peter Shannon, the Philharmonic’s artistic director and conductor. “Opening night is really a great reunion for all of us — conductor, orchestra and our wonderful audience. “I know the orchestra members are very excited about Sortomme’s violin concerto with American violinist Elmar Oliveira. This world premiere is all the more special because the concerto was written for Maestro Oliveira. I’ve enjoyed learning this work.

“Beethoven’s Eroica symphony in the second half just adds to the excitement that we already all feel,” Shannon says. “It will be an incredible night at the Lucas Theatre.”

The world premiere concerto will be a crowd favorite, says Mitchell Krieger, the new executive director of the Savannah Philharmonic. “We’re really thrilled about the opening concert and the world premiere concerto,” Krieger says. “I was listening to and looking at the piece last night. It’s very beautiful. People are going to love it.

“Beethoven did many things with his Third Symphony, the Eroica,” Krieger says. “It is an orchestra showpiece full of deep meaning and exciting sounds.”

Sortomme and his wife, Carol Webb, who recently retired as a violinist with the New York Philharmonic, are residents of Savannah. “She is a wonderful violinist, but she wanted to do something else, and we decided to move out of New York,” Sortomme says. “Two years ago, we started the process of looking.

“A year ago in March, we came down here to see the area,” he says. “We sold our house fast and came down and bought one here.” Sortomme’s family was artistic and musical. “My mother was a great opera singer and my father was a brilliant watercolorist,” he says. “I was born in Southern California. At 5, I said I wanted to play the violin, but I didn’t get to it until I was 6.

“When you are that young and want something, you really want it. When I got to the East Coast at 13, I almost gave up the violin, but my mother got me lessons again.

“By the time I was 14, I was in the prep division of Juliiard and practiced six to seven hours per day,” Sortomme says. “At that point, it was total commitment.”

For years, Sortomme had a successful chamber music career performing on violin and viola. “I started my career as a musician and went through Julliard as a concert violinist,” he says. “My career was devoted to violin.”

One of his most memorable performances was in November 1982. “I played a Ravel duo with cellist Jeffrey Solow,” Sortomme says. “It was one of those occasions when everything came together. “It was one of the best times I ever played. I was 34, so this is definitely not the sort of thing where people say, ‘If you don’t have it by the time you’re 19, that’s it.’ “Some people get it when they’re a little older,” he says. “I dipped my toe into elite waters.”

But eventually, Sortomme returned to his greatest love, composition. By 1997, he was devoting all of his creative energies to composing. “In the early ’90s, things coalesced,” Sortomme says. “I had written in high school and it was very easy for me and I got the bug again. “Some opportunities came up to write some early things,” he says. “Over those five years, I decided to transition to composing.”

As a composer, Sortomme’s proudest achievement was the 2007 world premiere of “Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra,” which was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra.

Violinist Oliveira and Sortomme are friends. Oliveira performs regularly with such orchestras as the Boston Symphony, London Philharmonic, the Zürich Tonhalle and others. He recently established the Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition. “Elmar is an amazing talent,” Sortomme says. “We worked together in freelancing.

“In the mid-’70s, Elmar left town. He was working and making a good living, but his destiny was to be a great concert violinist.

“He was playing with every major orchestra in the world and our paths didn’t cross any more,” Sortomme says. “In the mid-2000s, I decided to contact him.”

Sortomme sent recordings of his pieces to Oliveira, and the friendship was revived. “He said, ‘Ricky, I want you to write me a violin concerto,’” Sortomme says. “I was honored and flattered.

“Ordinarily, I don’t start to write until there’s a contract, but because it was Elmar, I said OK. He was fully onboard.

“Nothing happened with it for a while, and then I was introduced to Peter Shannon,” Sortomme says. “After he said that he wanted to do it, I got in touch with Elmar.”

Audiences thoroughly enjoy Sortomme’s music, as do critics. During a question-and-answer session before the premiere of another work, he was asked, “Is there going to be anything after your piece that I can hum?” “The audience cracked up,” Sortomme says. “I said, ‘Most definitely, yes, there will be.’

“The American Record Guide said my music is very approachable. I don’t have any problem in framing me that way. “I don’t want people to think they’re going to have a cacophony of music thrown at them,” Sortomme says. “It’s never been me.”

IF YOU GO What: Savannah Philharmonic: Opening Night When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10 Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St. Cost: $16-$75