As the Principal Pops Conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic, John Morris Russell has big shoes to fill.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Doc Severinsen embodied the Pops spirit at the Buffalo Philharmonic, with crowd-pleasing, dynamic programs. Night owls who watched him during the week on “The Tonight Show” flocked to the hall for their own brush with celebrity. In the early 2000s, the late, great composer Marvin Hamlisch led the series with finesse, involving lots of community talent and well-known artists.
Russell is the perfect person to continue the Pops tradition at the BPO. His boundless charisma, energy and enthusiasm – one staff person described him as “human coffee” – allow him to forge a connection with every audience member, whether they’re seated in the front row or the back of the balcony. He also brings a lot of experience to the role: not only is he the leader of the highly-respected Cincinnati Pops and the burgeoning Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, he spent 11 seasons leading the Windsor Symphony Orchestra in Canada.
“The whole border community is such a vibrant area. There’s so much going on,” he said, referencing the Medical Campus expansion, the influx of renewable energy corporations, and the revitalization taking place downtown. “I spent so much time on the other side of the river. I’m really anxious to explore everything down here. It’s an exciting time to be in Buffalo.”
Yet, it was a job he never sought.
In 2014, he guest-conducted “Glee” star Matthew Morrison’s performance with the BPO at the request of his longtime friend, then-BPO General Manager David Crane. At the time, the BPO was engaged in a search for a Principal Pops Conductor, their first since Hamlisch’s departure in 2007. He was asked if he’d consider the role, he says, and was ultimately selected from among the other candidates. He added the role of Principal Pops Conductor to his duties with the Cincinnati Pops and with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.
Russell led three BPO concerts last season: Holiday Pops, Great Ladies of Swing with Dee Daniels, and A Tribute to John Denver. This season, he will lead five concerts, beginning with The Music of John Williams. He is based in Cincinnati, and spends several days prior to each concert in Buffalo rehearsing with the BPO.
“We have got such a fantastic orchestra, really great players. We wanted to kick things off by having a showpiece that features the virtuosity of the orchestra. There’s no better way to do that than with the music of John Williams.” The Sept. 24 concert includes music from “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Superman,” and “Schindler’s List,” as well as Williams’ Olympic theme that resonated through homes this summer during the Rio Games.
“It’s going to be a resplendent performance of great orchestral music. This is music you kind of take for granted as you’re eating popcorn and watching the latest Star Wars installment, but when you listen to the music by itself, it stands on its own and is some of the most splendid orchestral writing that’s ever been created.”
On October 22, Russell will introduce a new act to Western New York: The New York Voices. Ask him about this group, and his characteristic enthusiasm takes over.
“They are EXTRAORDINARY. Oh. My. God. They’re so jazzy and hip and incredibly talented,” he said. The Ithaca College-trained vocal quartet has a sound similar to that of Manhattan Transfer, and they will perform a show called “Sweet Sounds of the 70s.” Russell included an orchestral medley of music by the legendary Wrecking Crew, the house band for many of Phil Spector’s artists, because Wrecking Crew member Tommy Tedesco is a native of Buffalo.
“It’s [Buffalo’s] cultural diversity that breeds great music makers in all varieties,” he said, in a comment hinting at future seasons, “We want to further explore some of the great music makers that have called Buffalo their home.”
Last season, Russell made his debut as Principal Pops Conductor with Holiday Pops, one of the orchestra’s biggest concerts of the season. It is also a concert very close to his heart.
“I’m a Christmas music nut. I’ve got literally a thousand LPs that I’ve been collecting since I was a kid,” he said. He remembers his father coming home with compilations put out by Firestone and Goodyear after getting the snow tires put on the family car. “It would always just be this panoply of music. I like to have that kind of wild diversity to holiday programs. We’re celebrating peace, love and joy and I’d like to make sure every single piece of music on the program exudes it.”
Russell is still in the process of finalizing plans for Holiday Pops, but has planned to showcase the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, who he calls “fantastic,” ever since the first rehearsal for last season’s concert. He also plans to seek out and highlight additional Buffalo talent on this concert, which has the potential attendance of nearly 10,000 people among the four performances on Dec. 16, 17 and 18.
After the holiday break, Russell will return to lead Broadway star Lisa Vroman in “A Valentine Romance” on Feb. 10 and 11. Vroman has sung the role of Christine in “Phantom in the Opera” more than anyone else, and has numerous other Broadway, orchestral and opera credits.
“It’s a real delight to be able to bring her to Buffalo. She kind of embodies what I think of as the ‘pops spirit,’” Russell said. “She’s an exceptional singer who can sing everything from opera to show tunes to jazz. We like to have that same ethos to the pops.” He quoted Duke Ellington as saying “If it sounds good, it is good.”
Russell is also eager to share the talents of The Midtown Men with Buffalo, on March 31 and April 1. Comprised of original cast members from the hit Broadway show “Jersey Boys,” the group performs hits from 1960s and 1970s.
“Midtown Men preformed with the Cincinnati Pops a few years ago, and they were outstanding. It’s an incredibly entertaining show. I immediately thought this would be perfect for Buffalo,” Russell said.
Russell plans to spend his off-time exploring the city and getting to know it better. He is particularly interested in spending time on Lake Erie, something he didn’t do last season because his concerts were in December, January and February. He also plans to visit the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, to further explore the rich architectural heritage in Buffalo, to experience more of Buffalo’s dining scene, and just generally get to know a region in which he already feels at home.
“[After my guest-conducting appearance,] I looked around town and said, ‘these are my people,’” he recalled. “It was a wonderful serendipitous moment. It’s been a wonderful relationship. All the concerts we did last year were so much fun.”
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