Last month, the Cincinnati Pops announced the appointment of John Morris Russell as its conductor, succeeding the legendary Erich Kunzel, who died in September 2009. The usual flurry of laudatory press coverage followed the announcement, but there wasn’t much focus on a significant part of Russell’s career that will be crucial for the Pops future — his commitment to community outreach.
The Cleveland native’s longstanding passion for education and community involvement dates back to his leading youth orchestras in Akron and Oberlin in the 1990s. During his tenure with the CSO from 1995-2006, Russell implemented Classical Roots: Spiritual Heights, bringing the works of African-American composers into neighborhood churches, and he created Home for the Holidays, prominently featuring local performers with the Pops.
CityBeat sat down with Maestro Russell the day after he led a weekend of Pops holiday concerts that featured the Walnut Hills High School vocal ensemble, the May Festival Youth Chorus and Hip Hop dancers from Elementz. Oh, yes, and Debbie Boone.
CityBeat: How do you define outreach in general and community outreach specifically?
John Morris Russell: It’s engagement, and if you’re talking community outreach, it has to be a two-way street. You can do it in many ways. Classical Roots: Spiritual Heights was an opportunity to introduce the orchestra to people who weren’t familiar with it and who didn’t come to Music Hall, and for us to jump in and perform repertory we might not have done otherwise. It includes our family concerts. How can we engage adults so that music and music-making is part of their family’s daily lives? And it’s about local performers being part of the concerts. We did just that for the holiday concerts this past weekend. Holy cow! They were fabulous! I forgot how great music-making is in this town. It’s more than taking the orchestra out there — it’s a daily activity to create relevance for the orchestral experience in people’s lives.
CB: What opportunities do you foresee while Music Hall is closed for renovation?
JMR: We’ll be moving into the Taft Theater and we’ll be able to take the orchestra to do more projects on the road.
We’ve done concerts in Mason, Springdale and other suburbs. The community concerts are fun — the audience loves being close up with the orchestra. I want to rebuild older connections to these communities so that when we move back, we’ve rekindled those connections to bring people downtown and into Music Hall.
CB: Programming is a big part of outreach, too. What will you be considering?
JMR: We’ve seen a blossoming of songwriting in the U.S. for the last 20 years. It’s much more individual, especially with the tools and communication devices available. So with this rebirth of songwriting, we’re looking to identify who’s creating the new American Songbook and take that generation of songwriters to the next level.
CB: Anybody in mind?
JMR: No, but I’m cruising YouTube all the time.
CB: What other collaborative projects interest you?
JMR: Elementz (a Hip Hop youth arts center located on Central Parkway, behind Music Hall), for sure. It’s the first time we’ve had Hip Hop dancers; they did a Hip Hop Trepak from The Nutcracker and the audience went wild. The Hispanic community has increased dramatically in the four years that I’ve been away. We did a “Día de los Muertos” around Halloween with the Windsor Symphony and the audiences really got into it. This was another way the orchestra could embrace a community and showcase the great diversity and wonders of another culture.
And I just had a note from Miami University’s steel drum band. That’s one of the reasons I’m so thrilled to be back. There’s so much diverse music-making and performing, and the Pops is the one place where we can bring everyone together. I’m not one to shy away from things that people don’t associate with the orchestra and finding a way to make it work.
CB: You’ve already hit the ground running, but once you take over for the 2011 season, what will be your priority?
JMR: There can’t be one. You have to hit things at so many different levels. When we developed the CSO’s “Sound Discoveries” program, it was all about engagement at different levels. You have to do concerts that are aimed at different grade levels, you’ve got to do family concerts, you have to have musical activities with a youth orchestra, you have to have connections between the orchestra musicians and young musicians throughout the region.
You have to be able to engage school administrators on the importance of integrating music into their curriculum. You have to take your orchestra and go out into the community. You have to be able to embrace the basic building blocks of the musical experience and use it as a way to engage your listeners. You need to bring performers from the community to work with the orchestra.
So all these things work together. Community engagement has to be in the fabric of everything we do — we can’t just go give a performance and think that the job is done. It’s relationship-building and following through.
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