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John Russell ’82 named new conductor of the Cincinnati Pops


John Morris Russell ’82 has been invited to fill the shoes of a legend. From 1977 until 2009, the Cincinnati Pops under the leadership of conductor Erich Kunzel produced over a hundred albums, many of them bestsellers, as they became leaders in popularizing orchestral recordings of film scores and Broadway music. Kunzel also made hundreds of guest conductor appearances worldwide, conducted the National Symphony in the annual Independence Day concert on the steps of the Capitol, and mentored Keith Lockhart of the Boston Pops and Steve Reineke of the New York Pops.

Now it’s Russell’s turn — he’s been selected in a national search triggered by Kunzel’s 2009 death from cancer. Russell was one of the favorites for the position, having been Associate Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1995 to 2006 ((Although Russell is a native of Cleveland, which may have worked against him). In fact, Russell was actually already scheduled to be in Cincinnati this week as the guest conductor for their “Happy Holidays with the Pops” concert.

At Williams, Russell majored in music and graduated with highest honors. According to a Cincinnati Magazine profile in 1997, it was at Williams that Russell migrated from jazz (he was a trumpeter in a garage band in high school!) to classical music:

He didn’t take classical music seriously until he got into college. “I started finding these connections between jazz music, which I was raised with, and the classical repertoire.”

Russell’s epiphany, though, came during his junior year, while studying at King’s College in London. He had taken a conducting class “on a lark,” he recalls, and was asked to conduct for a Gilbert and Sullivan society production of The Pirates of Penzance. And then? “As they say,” he says, “once you stand in front of an audience and conduct, you’re hooked.”

And Russell hasn’t forgotten his Williams days: prior to the recent New York Pops celebration of Stephen Sondheim ’50’s 80th birthday, he reflected on their Williams connection and the words to “The Mountains.”  I look forward to a future Cincinnati Pops album of college songs that includes it! More from the press release:

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be returning home to lead the incomparable Cincinnati Pops, and deeply honored to continue a leading role in the world of orchestral entertainment as established by my friend and colleague, Erich Kunzel,” said Mr. Russell, who worked closely with Maestro Kunzel during his tenure as Associate Conductor with the CSO. “The Tri-state region and the Cincinnati Pops have my full-time commitment as we continue building upon our legacy of world-class performances, recordings, tours and television specials while promoting exceptional music-making of all kinds throughout our community.”

Recognized for his innovative programming and commitment to attracting new and diverse audiences to orchestral music while in Cincinnati, Mr. Russell created the Classical Roots: Spiritual Heights series, which brought the music of African-American composers and performers to thousands of listeners in area churches, and was also the co-creator of the popular Christmas spectacular, Home for the Holidays. Maestro Russell is also widely considered a leader in educational programming for orchestras.

Russell has been Music Director of the Windsor [Ontario] Symphony Orchestra for the last 10 years. He will officially assume his new role at the Cincinnati Pops on September 1, 2011.

Congratulations to John! Hopefully we’ll see you making a guest appearance back on campus sometime soon!