Author: Paul Devere | Photographer: Photography by Anne
His style has been described as creative, energetic, captivating, exciting. He has an international reputation as one of the most gifted conductors in today’s music world. He is as comfortable with Joplin and Gershwin as he is with Beethoven and Haydn. In March 2012, the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra announced it had selected a new music director and principal conductor, Maestro John Morris Russell.
Russell also holds the same position with the extremely popular Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. In 2011, he wrapped up eleven seasons as music director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra in Ontario, Canada, where he was able to practice his passion for taking music to the people with educational programs and outreach activities. Windsor showered him with awards in recognition of his dramatic influence on the cultural life of the region. He even ended up with an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Windsor. It is a passion he intends to bring to Hilton Head Island.
CH2 got a chance to talk with the maestro about some “blue sky” ideas, his philosophy as a conductor and how he got into the music business and art of conducting, going back to his roots as a high school horn player.
CH2: We have to get this one out of the way immediately. What was the favorite group your garage band covered?
John Morris Russell: We did Chicago, Average White Band, Tower of Power, Commodores. But the favorite, A number one group? Earth, Wind and Fire. It was a horn band, so it had trumpet, sax, trombone, full rhythm section. Yeah.
CH2: Early on, did you have any idea that you would have a career as a conductor?
Russell: I knew I wanted to be in music pretty much from the get-go. I guess looking back I would probably say even more so. But it didn’t seem that way growing up. It was just there.
CH2: Did family life play an important part in your decision?
Russell: We didn’t have any professional musicians [in the family]. My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, so we were always singing at church—the great hymn book. But my parents made sure that all of us took lessons. My sister played piano; one of my brothers played trombone; another brother played clarinet; my dad played clarinet; and my mom played the piano. Everyone in the family took lessons and, every once in a while, we would play together as a family.
But it was mostly through public schools that I had my music exposure. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and, of course, Cleveland has a world-renowned orchestra. So we would go to concerts all the time. But it wouldn’t be family concerts or young people’s concerts. We would just go to concerts—all sorts of them.
CH2: You attended King’s College in London. That seems to be an important part of your early career.
Russell: Yeah, it was at the same time that I started developing problems with trumpet playing. The doctor pretty much said “no more trumpet for you.” I had some muscular problems that prevented me from playing. I went to London for my junior year abroad from Williams College in Massachusetts. It was that year at King’s College at the music facility I was kind of trying to find myself. Of course London, which has five professional symphony orchestras—world-class professional symphony orchestras as well as visiting orchestras from all over the world—was a good place to be. And King’s College was right across the town from Royal Festival Hall, which is where most of these orchestras were playing. Two, three, maybe four times per week, I would listen to the concerts. These were incredible orchestras, incredible conductors and musicians. It was at the same time I was really jumping into music history, music theory and trying to find where my place in all of this was. That is when I first got the bug to try conducting. In fact, my very first gig I was the conductor of the King’s College Gilbert and Sullivan Society. We did a performance of Pirates of Penzance. I caught the bug. Once you jump in there, that’s it.
CH2: Early on, did you have a hero, a conductor who influenced you?
Russell: Well, really early on, the first concert that I ever saw was George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, Dvorák’s Symphony No.8. The trumpet fanfare before the fourth movement, I thought, “Oh, that’s my instrument. They are playing my instrument, they are playing all by themselves, and they didn’t screw up. Oh, this is great!”
Anyway, growing up in Cleveland it was just like, “Oh yeah, this is a really good orchestra.” I had no idea that it was a really good orchestra. Famous. Anyway, Szell was the first conductor I ever saw and I only saw him that once. After that I saw a lot of Lorin Maazel and many of the other conductors and guest conductors in Cleveland. But it was a recorded legacy, that box set of the Beethoven Nine Symphonies with Szell in Cleveland…. I wore it out, absolutely, on the old Magnavox.
CH2: You have conducted many major orchestras all over the world. Can you explain the relationship between you and the musicians, the orchestra? How does that work?
Russell: That role has changed over a long period of time. In the days of Szell or Toscanini, it was very much what we would consider old school. For the maestro, it would be their way or the highway. I think for all my experience, working with Jesus Lopez-Cobos of the Cincinnati Symphony really informed me more of a new relationship. I’m going to go a little further. Jesus Lopez-Cobos in Cincinnati and Daniel Lewis at The University of Southern California whom I studied with to get my master’s degree: Both of them were very much of the “we” school, what do we have to do to—“we,” the orchestra and the conductor—to bring justice to this piece—to get to the essence of a Beethoven, or Brahms or Schumann. That’s what it is really about. It is not so much the conductor dictating what he or she wants for the orchestra; it’s more the conductor empowering the musicians to make the types of choices that will let this great piece of music shine.
CH2: What about the audience; what is your relationship to them? Or are you just focused on those folks in front of you instead of behind you?
Russell:The audience is as much a part of the performance as the orchestra. To have an engaged and engaging audience, people who appreciate all the work that you are doing and who are sharing the totality of the experience. I think this is one of the things that I have really felt great about throughout the last season, as principle guest conductor, was how engaged the audience is here on Hilton Head—so very knowledgeable, very supportive and very appreciative of all the great work that is done on stage. Exceptional.
CH2: Other than being from Ohio (laughter), what brought you to the Lowcountry?
Russell: I came to Savannah in 1993 as the associate conductor of the Savannah Symphony. It was in Savannah actually that I met my wife Thea, who attended the Savannah College of Art and Design and went on to become the assistant curator of the Owens Thomas House. We came back and were married at St. John’s Episcopal Church. I don’t know the name of the square [Madison]. We still have loads of friends in the region. Amongst the orchestra are so many great friends and colleagues that I used to work with at the Savannah Symphony. In a lot of ways, this is very much a homecoming.
CH2: You are both a strong advocate of great regional orchestras and the potential a great orchestra can bring to a community. What are your thoughts about Hilton Head Island?
Russell: Look at communities like Brevard, North Carolina, a summer vacation destination, and with this great music festival that has defined that region in terms of bringing tourists—bringing people who now call that region their home. We go to places like Aspen, Vail, and Telluride, all with premier arts festivals that bring a certain type of people that engage and employ the local population and have made those places unique in the world. Hilton Head is such a place.
We have one of the great golf tournaments on the PGA Tour. We have an incredible culture surrounding golf, the beach, nature—an extraordinary environment. Yet there is a piece of the pie that could take this island, this region, to the status of world-class. That’s the arts. This is, I think, something that is attainable and sustainable. It is one of the real important keys to the future of the island and what we can be, not only to the region, but also to the country and to the world. We have an extraordinary opportunity, and it begins with a fantastic symphony orchestra.
CH2: Okay. Trick question. Do you have a favorite genre?
Russell: Trick answer. Whatever I’m conducting.