John Morris Russell, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s new principal pops conductor, made quite an impression at Friday and Saturday’s Pops concerts. And Russell wasn’t even conducting. He wasn’t even here.
He greeted the audience via video.
With his heavy, uncompromising glasses and rapid-fire voice, Russell just about jumped out of the screen. As he discussed the upcoming season – “We’re bringing in Pink Martini. Exotic! Sexy!” – everyone was smiling. By the time he got to his piece de resistance – “I’m looking forward to having my first Ted’s hot dog! And having some wings at the Anchor Bar!” – the hall was full of appreciative laughter.
What is it going to be like, having him here in person?
“He’ll be bringing us a sense of enthusiasm, and of passion,” said Dennis Black of the BPO.
That seems certain.
On the phone from Cincinnati, where he lives, Russell projected the same energy. He was also full of surprises.
“I get to lead a Philharmonic!” he exulted.
It’s all about the name, he explained.
“Phila – love – plus harmony – music,” he said excitedly.
He also complimented Buffalo on its hip radio. Russell never set foot in Buffalo before last fall, when he conducted the BPO’s Pops concert featuring Matthew Morrison. But he came close to Buffalo in his student days, passing by on the Thruway from his hometown of Cleveland to Williams College.
And when he passed Buffalo, the radio would go on. “I would always tune into WBLK, a fantastic soul station,” he exclaimed.
Russell plans on tailoring concerts to our town.
In Cincinnati, he has designed programs playing up aspects of that city’s history. A recent concert centered on Stephen Foster, who spent some time in that town working discontentedly as a bookkeeper. Russell arranged for unexpected singers, such as local rock vocalists, tackling Foster’s songs. The show was a hit.
“I’m always about learning and discovering those things that are special in a community,” he said.
“Being that I was born and raised in Cleveland, the whole ethos of the Great Lakes is something that’s dear to me. And something that I am particularly excited about is that Buffalo has a great jazz tradition. It seems to be in the soil. To be able to play that up and explore that and take advantage of the great jazz musicians who are there in town, it’s really exciting for me.”
The Buffalo Philharmonic has not had a principal pops conductor since the late Marvin Hamlisch, who held the post from 2003 to 2007. Other illustrious former BPO pops conductors have included Doc Severinsen, Mitch Miller – and, Russell pointed out joyously – Erich Kunzel.
Kunzel was the founder of the Cincinnati Pops, and Russell was his associate conductor for more than a decade. Even now, Russell said, he talks frequently about “taking a page from the E.K. playbook.”
He loves the unifying qualities of pops music.
“It is so uniquely American. It’s music of the now, of the present. And certainly we hearken back to the American experience and the European experience as well. But it gives you an opportunity to create things that are new and fresh and add to the repertoire.
“Pops music speaks to the heart,” he explained. “It’s the music that expresses our cultural heritage. Our music comes from that unique melding of African tradition, European tradition, Asian tradition, all these traditions that came together to create a sound world unique to America. I think that’s what touches everyone. It’s the one thing that brings us together.”
At the same time, Russell acknowledges that every city has its own unique landscape.
He said that his wife, a historic preservationist, is looking forward to checking out Buffalo’s buildings. He, too, envisions exploring the Queen City in depth – and incorporating what he finds into his concerts.
“When people say, ‘Oh, I love jazz, I love swing,’ you can swing 12 different ways,” he said. “And one of those ways is unique to Buffalo.” He laughed. “The Buffalo shuffle!
“I know there are amazing musical stories in Buffalo. And doggone it, I’m going to find them.”