Cincinnati Pops’ John Morris Russell makes a case for the ‘good stuff’

Cincinnati Pops Conductor John Morris Russell
Cincinnati Pops Conductor John Morris Russell (Photo by Tina Gutierrez)

JMR wants to woo you into the world of orchestral music

Most stories about John Morris Russell spend lots of time discussing his showmanship, his brash, cheerleader-ish onstage persona as conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra – the guy one of his former colleagues described as “a wind-up toy” that never runs down.

But this is a story about a more contemplative JMR, as he has become known over his 20 years in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra organization. Still enthusiastic, of course, but a JMR who reflects on the complex relationship between orchestras and their audiences. And even more importantly, perhaps, the relationship with those people who are not orchestras’ audiences. How to bring them into the fold?

“Oh, that is the $20,000 question, isn’t it?” he says. “Everyone is trying to figure that out.” To be honest, “everyone” has been trying to figure that out for decades.

And JMR is the first to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers. He’s unwilling to predict the future of American orchestral life. But the more he talks, the more you hear a theme that connects almost everything he says – “music is for everyone.”

“Music is for everyone.”

Who could possibly disagree with that? Almost everyone has some kind of favorite music. But the point he’s making is that music is, for the most part, quite segmented. And mostly, we like it like that. It’s less pronounced than it was 50 years ago, perhaps. But still, we treat the idea of mixing musical genres as something out of the ordinary, almost newsworthy. 

Not JMR.

He relishes the diversity of music. He talks with equal enthusiasm about playing trumpet in the pit band at Shaker Heights High School and conducting Beethoven in Music Hall. You get the sense that it makes little difference to him whether he’s conducting Brahms in a concert hall, recording with Rosanne Cash or performing “Peter and the Wolf” for a theater packed with wiggly kids. They all have a place in JMR’s heart.

John Morris Russell (Photos by Tina Gutierrez)
John Morris Russell (Photos by Tina Gutierrez)

Conducting those ‘other’ concerts

He talks fondly of the 11 years he spent as an associate conductor for both the CSO and the Pops orchestras. It is a far less glamorous position than it sounds. Basically, associate conductors – especially the younger ones – are called on to lead all those performances the music director has little time for – family concerts, education concerts, outreach concerts.

“The thing is that to young conductors … ” He pauses for a moment, trying to find a delicate way to describe how most up-and-coming conductors regard those “other” concerts. “Many of them will just turn their nose up and go through the paces. They think these are the dues they have to pay so that they can conduct Mahler later on. You know – to show the world how Mahler is supposed to be done.”

But for JMR, who cut his early conducting chops leading youth orchestras around Cleveland, every performance is an opportunity to woo someone into the world of orchestral music.

“We would play for anyone anywhere,” says JMR. “I called it ‘the cafetorium circuit.’ You’ve got all these kids and all of this energy. You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to make this concert speak to them. And I’ll tell you what – I loved those kids. They had absolutely no expectations. It was all up to us.”

So sure, he would play some music that they recognized. Some John Williams movie music or an arrangement of a recent pop song. But he didn’t shy away from the classics, either.

“It’s like my mantra for doing family concerts,” says JMR. “You have to make sure to play the good stuff. I don’t think you do anyone any favors by dumbing it down. Whether you’re playing in someone’s church or a shopping mall or a major concert hall, you play the good stuff – always.”

It helps to work with musicians who are committed to such an eclectic approach to music. That’s why JMR felt particularly fortunate when he landed the CSO associate conductor gig back in 1995.

“Our orchestra is so very, very progressive in the variety of music that we perform,” says JMR. We have incredibly flexible musicians who can play anything from the Baroque style to early Romantic to Mahlerian and at the same time are real aces for contemporary music. They can swing any one of 17 ways, from ragtime and big band to Texas Shuffle.”

John Morris Russell (Photos by Tina Gutierrez)
John Morris Russell (Photos by Tina Gutierrez)

All about the audience

So is that the key to a healthy musical future? Musicians who are capable of playing a multiplicity of styles?

“No,” he says bluntly. “That’s important. But this is all about the audience. Otherwise we could just sit in a recording studio all the time and not worry about who shows up to our concerts. I remember the first time we played for a live audience again late last year (during the pandemic). I think there were only a couple of hundred people there. Man, it was something else. All of us were looking at them and thinking, ‘Yes, this is why we’re in this.’ This is definitely why I do it.”

But growing and diversifying an audience takes a deep and long-term commitment on the part of an arts organization. It doesn’t happen overnight. JMR was reminded of that recently when the orchestra’s Classical Roots concerts celebrated their 20th anniversary. He had been instrumental in founding the series and is still its greatest advocate.

“For many orchestras, the solution to attracting a larger African American audience is to put together a program sometime in the middle of the shortest month of the year (which happens to be Black History Month) and then pat themselves on the back and say, ‘Yes, we’re doing the right thing.’ As if presenting one cookie-cutter program that presumes to tell the whole story is the solution to diversifying the audience. 

“The whole African American story is too impossibly huge and vast and varied. That’s why we are still doing these concerts year after year – there is so much to explore.”

And that, of course, is only one small part of growing 21st-century orchestral audiences. Don’t ignore the importance of MEMI to the CSO’s bottom line. MEMI is Music & Event Management Inc., the wholly owned CSO subsidiary that manages a half-dozen highly profitable venues: the new ICON Music Center, Riverbend Music Center, PNC Pavilion, the Rose Center at the Heights, the Taft Theatre and the Taft Ballroom.

“MEMI is essential to our future,” says JMR. The present-day reality is that performances of acts like ZZ Top and Alanis Morissette are essential to the economic stability of the May Festival and Louis Langrée. And JMR.

“I love the idea that we have one organization that presents music – all sorts of music,” says JMR. “There are no walls. ‘We present music.’ That says it all. We can’t allow ourselves to make rigid musical distinctions anymore.”

Always exploring the ‘now’

That’s why he adores his work with the Pops so much.

“With the Pops, we’re always exploring the ‘now.’ That means we’re always going to take chances. We’re going to get new and different artists, and they’re going to bring new and different things to the stage – stuff that we’ve never heard before.”

The solutions seem obvious. But they are expensive. It’s like investing in your retirement when you’re 25. Or opening an account for your child’s college education while they’re still in diapers.

“You always have to look ahead,” says JMR. “Five years after I left as associate conductor, I returned to lead the Pops. All of those parents who had taken their kids to the family concerts and were singing along, those kids were off in college and the parents, unbeknownst to me, became the new generation of Pops fans. And now, those kids – literally, kids – who came to Music Hall for their first experience, are now there on date night.

“Sometimes, I don’t think we are aware of how profound those early experiences are to people. We’re planting seeds – musical seeds – in people’s minds. We’ve helped to make orchestral music a part of their lives. It may take five or 10 or 15 years, but those seeds will bear fruit.”

To JMR, it doesn’t really matter whether those musical seeds lead people to a Brahms Requiem or Classical Roots or a Pops holiday concert. The key is for orchestras to be ready to offer audiences a full range of orchestral experiences.

“We just have to be sure we are there with the right music when they are ready to take the next steps on their musical journeys.”

About John Morris Russell

John Morris Russell, aka “JMR,” is celebrating 10 years as conductor of the Cincinnati Pops and his 20th year overall with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

He is also music director and principal conductor of the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, and principal pops conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic and he holds the title of Conductor Laureate with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra in Ontario.

He lives in Hyde Park with his wife, Thea Tjepkema, who serves on the board of the Friends of Music Hall as the building’s historian and archivist. Their children are both Walnut Hills High School grads: son Jack, a recording engineer in Chicago, and daughter Alma, a freshman at Harvard University.

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