Russell excited to take over BPO Pops podium, Jim Fink, Business First

Four letters — WBLK — ultimately helped the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Buffalo FM radio station is what gave John Morris Russell his first impression of the city.

Russell, 54, the newly named Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra principal pops conductor is a self-described R&B and Motown music fanatic, along with jazz and classical pieces, too.

The Cleveland native used to listen to WBLK when he made his drive to Williams College.

“The only thing I really knew about Buffalo was WBLK, which I thought was this great radio station,” Russell said.

Russell is learning a lot more about Buffalo as he gets ready to take over his new position this fall. By hiring Russell, who is also the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra conductor, the BPO has a principal pops conductor for the first time since 2007. The late Marvin Hamlisch was the last pops conductor.

Russell is keeping both his Cincinnati and Hilton Head posts.

Under the terms of his contract, Russell will be the BPO’s Principal Pops Conductor-designate for three concerts in the 2015-2016 season.

For the 2016-2017, 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons will Russell will be elevated to the Principal Pops Conductor status. During those seasons, he will conduct five concerts and work closely on scheduling guest stars and programs with JoAnn Falletta, BPO music director, and Dan Hart, executive director.

It was a guest turn on the Kleinhans Music Hall podium this past fall that put Russell on the BPO’s radar screen and vice versa.

“I knew a search was going on, but at the time, I really wasn’t looking at that position,” Russell said.

So what changed his mind?

Working with the orchestra, meeting Falletta and the overall experience he had in Buffalo last September.

“The audience was just so fantastic,” Russell said. “It really stuck with me.”

And, the chance to work with the highly acclaimed Falletta was another key factor.

“I’ve never met someone who opens her heart in such a big way for the music,” Russell said. “JoAnn is an inspiration in a lot of different ways.”

Motown and R&B aside, Russell, who plays the trumpet, is fan of most forms of music. He rattled off such genres as bluegrass, gospel and, of course, the classics.

“I think of myself as equally versed musically,” Russell said. “Don’t ask me to chose between pops or classics because that’s like asking who do you like better, your mother or your father.”

Being based in Cincinnati, Russell said he already has a good feel for Buffalo and its Midwestern, blue-collar work ethic and values. Both cities are similar in many respects.

“In one regard, I am adding the Queen City of the Great Lakes to my Queen City of the Midwest resume,” he said.