If the term “pops” conjures up ebullience, energy, fizz, then John Morris Russell should fit in just fine as the new conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Russell is following the late Erich Kunzel, whose name and avuncular presence were synonymous with the Cincinnati Pops for decades. That left a large gap to fill, or big shoes to step into, or a major baton to carry—pick your metaphor—but Russell seems ready to handle the job with aplomb, a ready laugh, and the gift of gab. He’s no stranger to Cincinnati, having served for many seasons as the Cincinnati Symphony’s associate conductor, where he worked to connect the orchestra with young people and diverse audiences by developing a slate of new programs and targeted repertoire. Community engagement and education were hallmarks of his time as Cincinnati’s associate conductor, and his tenure as pops conductor was launched in September with a free, three-day festival of music of every description, entertainment by community groups, food, and even celebratory temporary tattoos. And when Cincinnati Pops says pops, they mean it: the street fair featured customized, Pops-themed popsicles.
Of course, it isn’t all pops for Russell. The conductor just wrapped up eleven years as music director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra in Ontario, Canada, where he oversaw artistic growth that included commissioning and performing 45 world premieres. He’s also principal guest conductor of South Carolina’s Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra for the 2011-2012 season, and was associate conductor of the Savannah Symphony Orchestra, director of the orchestral program at Vanderbilt University, and music director with the College Light Opera Company in Falmouth, Massachusetts. He has guest conducted widely; current appearances include a debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and return engagements with the Victoria Symphony, Orchestra London, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. From 1997 to 2009 he conducted the LinkUp! education series at Carnegie Hall.
The conductor recently spoke with SymphonyNOW about orchestras and community, his plans for the Cincinnati Pops, and—perhaps inevitably—Lady Gaga.
Robert Sandla: What attracted you to the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra?
John Morris Russell: Number one what drew me to the Cincinnati Pops is that the Cincinnati Pops is the greatest pops orchestra on the planet! These guys can play anything. The world knows about this orchestra. It is the most-recorded pops orchestra. It has toured extensively, plus there are the TV specials, the special projects. This is an orchestra that is doing things at the front edge of pops repertoire in the world.
Sandla: You have been associated with the Cincinnati Symphony for many years, as associate conductor.
Russell: Right. And of course, what attracted me to join the Cincinnati Symphony as associate conductor several years ago is … I got the gig! [Laughs.] How thrilling to be able to get that gig in the first place. In 1995, I stepped in after Keith Lockhart, who departed to go to the Boston Pops. One of the things I felt was that the Cincinnati Symphony could do a whole lot better in was education and outreach. I jumped in whole-hog in developing education and outreach programs, keeping programs while finding new and original, engaging way for the orchestra to relate to the community. In 1995, community engagement was not a part of any orchestra’s modus operandi. So I looked to revamp things on that front. Associate and assistant conductors all know that after you do an education concert you get 1,000 letters from kids who attended. It’s very gratifying—you get a thick envelope with all these letters. After my first concert here, every single letter said this: “Dear Maestro, I enjoyed the concert very much, especially the two-ton chandelier.” I thought, we’re not communicating effectively with the children or the teachers.
So I got together with the director of education at the time about how to do this better. We developed a series of rotating concerts for grades 1 to 4 and for grades 5 to 8 that linked with the scholastic curriculum outlined by states of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. We engaged teachers in the process to make the musical experience at the concert relevant to other kinds of learning. The greatest measure of my success in my final year as associate was that not a single letter mentioned that two-ton chandelier. They were drawings of people playing instruments; some wrote that Beethoven was their favorite piece of the program.
That was my “aha moment” in developing what we called Sound Discoveries [the Cincinnati Symphony young people’s concerts utilizing teacher guides, preparatory work, and related information]. It’s rewarding to see that it’s still very successful. From that one little bit of knowledge and experience in putting together those Sound Discoveries concerts, we realized that family concerts need to be relevant not just to kids but to adults as well. Adults are the ones making decisions, buying tickets, making the choices for their children. It became obvious that we needed to develop concerts that are engaging not just to the kids but to their parents and grandparents—and to take further steps to engage the musicians in our orchestra. We present great music in the family concerts, and the musicians feel as great about it as the audience members. They feel they are communicating and doing something good.
From family concerts, our next step was developing community-engagement concerts. We developed the “Classical Roots: Spiritual Heights” series specifically to go in African-American churches throughout the community to perform for and engage people who had been left out of our orchestral family. We found a way to bring the music to them. And we explored the repertoire of black America that had not found its way onto our flagship concert series. The fact of the matter is that the African-American musical experience is so diverse and has so many difference angles and tells so many stories about America. Each “Classical Roots: Spiritual Heights” concert tells the story of one aspect of the African-American experience in a deep and significant way.
This city, this region defined what American music is and can be. It’s great to come back now in a position of leadership in pops and use all those connections deep in the community to make music that is significant, relevant, and exciting.
Sandla: Let’s talk about your work as conductor of the Cincinnati Pops. What’s it been like so far?
Russell: It has been a party. [Laughs.] I mean, this has been a difficult time, what with moving my family from Canada, unpacking, packing, getting settled. But every concert is a homecoming. When I started doing family concerts in 1995, there were people who were thirty-something and forty-something with ten-year-old kids. Now they’re coming back fifteen years later, their kids are in college or have graduated, and they are empty nesters. They are coming back to the symphonic family as subscribers because of that previous association with us. All summer long, there was a series of parks concert throughout the community, and that was a chance to say hello to the great legions of Cincinnati Pops fans. With every concert, more and more people came out. It was like a snowball rolling down the hill. The opening concert in middle of September was over the top.
Sandla: There was also a Pop-Up Party—three days of street fairs in September with a broad assortment of community musical groups. This was free, right?
Russell: They were free. The idea for the street fair is that we wanted to talk about what the Pops is about and what Cincinnati is about: the music of America. And there are so many music makers in our community. Our orchestra is certainly the most world-renowned. But we have people here who engage in music-making in all sorts of different ways. For the street fairs, we invited music makers from all over the community to join us: a funk band, a barbershop quartet, singers, dancers, Suzuki kids on violin, a wonderful gospel chorus. You could get temporary tattoos, watch graffiti artists, and there were all kinds of food. There were hip-hop dancers, a bluegrass band. And they were wonderful. They were placed everywhere around Music Hall—it was a musical tapestry of America around you.
Starting as the new conductor of the Cincinnati Pops and following in footsteps of the mighty Erich Kunzel, I had a lot of angst. Anyone would. But when walked out there to say hi to the people a half-hour before the show—well, to hear all of this music surrounding me was overwhelming. It reminded me why I’m in this, why I love being here. It infused our concert with sense of energy and purpose.
Sandla: What kinds of repertoire have you got planned?
Russell: Pops to me is a two-way street certainly celebrating the great classical works of the last 20, 30, 40 years. We also need to embrace the great popular orchestral classics at the same time—those pieces of music that are in great danger of falling off the radar. They are deemed too light for our subscription programs and too heavy for our pops program, but to me they are some of the great and most popular music.
Sandla: For example?
Russell: The ballet music of Tchaikovsky. The great orchestral overtures of Offenbach. Strauss—actually, the whole waltz songbook is worth investigating. Gilbert and Sullivan. Suppé.
Sandla: What, no Lady Gaga?
Russell: Our orchestra has already performed some Lady Gaga. Some of her songs have been arranged for orchestra. So we’re totally on this. It’s important to be relevant, to find those things that have captured the popular imagination and rethink them orchestrally.