Top of the Pops

Conductor John Morris Russell prepares to take Cincinnati’s acclaimed ensemble to new noteworthy heights.

To listen to Cincinnati Pops conductor John Morris Russell's favorite songs from the ensemble’s recordings, click here. >>

There's no place like home for the holidays.

Just ask John Morris Russell.

In September, the Ohio native was officially handed the baton to become the new conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, the 90-piece ensemble known around the globe. A first order of business: Plan the group’s annual Christmas concert, a musical repast filled with favorite carols.

The 50-year-old maestro can’t wait.

“There are so many great Pops arrangements that have been lying fallow here for the past few years,” he says with the affable grin that enchants his audiences. “We’re going to polish them up and bring them out.”

Clearly, the message so many of these songs contain has also proved to be irresistible to the conductor.
“The cool thing about this music,” Russell explains, “is that it celebrates peace, joy, hope and love.

“And,” he adds, “isn’t that really what it’s all about?”

The orchestra leader’s passion for his work is not lost on the stars who have shared the stage with him.

“John is one of the most charming people I’ve ever met,” says Debby Boone, by phone from her home in Sherman Oaks, California. Last year, the Grammy Award-winning singer performed with the Pops in a program of tunes made famous by her late mother-in-law, Rosemary Clooney. “He strikes the perfect balance of humility and confidence, respecting the orchestra’s rich history, yet enthusiastically bringing new vision.”

As he strides through the venerated corridors of Music Hall — the 133-year-old Victorian Gothic Revival concert venue that has been home to the Pops since the group was founded in 1977 — it’s obvious Russell is delighted to be there. His association with the local music scene began in 1995, when he was hired as associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Although Russell headed north to Ontario a decade later to take the position of music director for the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, his fondness for the Queen City has never waned.

“There is so much music-making going on in this community that’s unique and wonderful,” he explains. “There are people who sing in the May Festival, and those who play at jazz clubs and participate in church choirs.

“And of course,” Russell adds proudly, “there’s the fantastic Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, filled with musicians who are absolutely at the top of their game. It’s so exciting and validating to work with these artists who add beauty to our society.”

But his elation at being back is tinged with an element of the bittersweet. The loss of Erich Kunzel, the Pops founding conductor who died in 2009 after a four-month battle with cancer, is keenly felt: The iconic music man led the group to worldwide renown through nationally televised concerts on PBS and a host of international tours. Kunzel’s popular recordings of classical music, Broadway tunes and movie scores topped the charts for three decades. In 2007, he received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush.

Russell recalls with fondness his initial encounter with the esteemed leader, which occurred shortly after he took the CSO associate conductor job.

“The first piece of mail I received was a hand-written letter from Erich Kunzel welcoming me to the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops, and adding what a great family it is and how I’ve got a great career ahead of me,” he says, still touched by the gesture.

Since Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra members play in the Pops, the men’s paths crossed often. The younger conductor couldn’t help but be impressed by Kunzel’s dedication to his craft.

“Erich was driven to put the best stuff out there and get people to really connect to the music,” Russell says. “And he did it with joy and love and fun.”

It’s a work ethic Russell, too, has taken to heart.

“Deciding who could possibly fill Erich Kunzel’s shoes was difficult,” says cellist Susan Marshall-Petersen, who’s been a member of the Pops since it began. “John Russell fits the bill. He exudes a positive vibe and has quickly become totally integrated into the fabric of the orchestra.

“And like Erich,” she adds, “John is always 20 steps ahead, thinking about the next thing coming down the pike.”

Russell’s fervor for all things melodious began as a child growing up in Shaker Heights. He considers himself lucky to have been raised in the city’s Ludlow neighborhood — one of America’s first integrated communities — during the 1960s. It was a place, he explains, where music truly served as a bridge to friendship and understanding.

“My life was filled with the sound-track of the Jackson 5, who my friends at school listened to, and the Beatles songs my sister loved,” Russell says. “And there were neighbors who always played jazz on their stereo, and we’d go to Cleveland to hear Buddy Rich and Count Basie.

But it was a trip to Severance Hall during his youth that would ultimately shape the would-be conductor’s destiny: The 8-year-old Russell, his parents and four siblings attended a Cleveland Orchestra performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, conducted by George Szell.

“Now, my family was big into decorum. And this was our very first concert, so we had our suits and ties on, our penny loafers were shined and our hair was greased down with Brylcreem,” Russell says, looking back on that evening in 1968. “Then, the fourth movement of the work began, with music so brilliant and robust it took my breath away. After that, this beautiful melody issued forth from the cellos, and the tempo increased and the whole orchestra played and the horns trilled.

“I was absolutely blown away. So much so that my older brother kept kicking me to get me to sit still,” he recalls with a chuckle.

“In the 10 seconds it took for the Cleveland Orchestra to play that trumpet fanfare,” Russell muses, “my whole life spread out before me.”

Trumpet and piano lessons followed. The conductor waxes nostalgic about his middle-school and high-school years, warmly recalling how he practically lived in the band room — playing in the orchestra, brass ensemble, marching band, jazz band, pep band during basketball games and the pit orchestra for spring and fall musicals.

And in between was a gig in a garage band called Sea Breeze. “There were no boundaries,” he says. “We played everything from Brahms to Blood, Sweat & Tears to Parliament Funkadelic.”

After graduating from Shaker Heights High School, it was on to Massachusetts’ Williams College to pursue a bachelor of arts degree in music, with emphasis on the trumpet. But fate intervened during his junior year: Russell developed a muscular condition that made it impossible for him to play. A friend suggested he try his hand at conducting.

Russell was a natural.

“When I played first trumpet in the brass ensemble in high school, it was my job to bring everyone in [on cue],” he says. “So, I would nod my head and breathe in and start making music.

“I discovered,” Russell explains, “that that’s also the essence of conducting.”

He honed his technique at the University of Southern California while earning a master’s in conducting. Russell also studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music. His noteworthy résumé includes assignments with the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra, serving as associate conductor of the Savannah Symphony Orchestra and directing the orchestral program at Vanderbilt University. He also helped create Carnegie Hall’s LinkUP! concerts for students.

“There are many conductors of pops orchestras who come from the world of Broadway or TV,” Russell reflects. “But I’m grateful to have worked my way through the classical composers.

“Whether you’re conducting a symphony or a pops orchestra,” he adds, “the symphonic language is the same.”

While Russell, his wife, Thea, son Jack, 12, and daughter Alma, 10, settle into their 1928 Tudor Revival home in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the conductor thinks ahead to what the new year will bring: For starters, he’ll be putting the finishing touches on preparations for the opening and closing ceremonies of the World Choir Games, to be held in Cincinnati in July. Singers from 24 countries are slated to participate in the 11-day event, billed as the largest choral competition in the world.

“Many will be coming to North America for the first time,” Russell marvels, “and we want to give them a real flavor of what makes us us.”

And then there are the new musical worlds waiting to be explored — bluegrass, country-western, Latin, gospel, rock. … The possibilities are endless.

“I’ve only been away for five years, but it seems so much longer,” he says. “I feel incredibly blessed to be able to return home, fit right in, pull from the many ideas I have and bring them to fruition.

“It is,” Russell adds, “the thrill of a lifetime.”

Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, 1241 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202, 513/381-3300.

Upcoming concerts include:
Dec. 9–11: “Happy Holidays with the Pops,” stars Grammy Award-winner Sandi Patty and the May Festival Chorus.
Jan. 20–21: “Night in Havana,” features the Cuban rhythms and jazz medleys of Tiempo Libre fused with classical works by Bach.
Feb. 17–19: “Disney in Concert: Magical Music from the Movies” includes selections from “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins.”