Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra picks new maestro

tbarton@islandpacket.comMarch 28, 2012 

John Morris Russell speaks after being introduced as the new music director and conductor of the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday at First Presbyterian Church. Looking on, from left, are orchestra board chairman Edward Parrish, orchestra president and CEO Mary Briggs and Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin.

JAY KARR, THE ISLAND PACKET

A familiar face and renowned conductor hopes to use the arts to promote Hilton Head Island as a place where "the best and brightest" call home.

John Morris Russell has been chosen as the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra's new music director and principal conductor, orchestra leaders announced Wednesday at the First Presbyterian Church on the island.

Russell, who will continue his primary role as conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, spent the 2011-12 season as principal guest conductor of the island orchestra.

"There are so many outstanding musicians here, and people really care about and are very passionate about music-making," he said. "Every concert we had here was such a joy to put together. ... It was exciting, engaging, and I knew that this was going to be a great relationship."

Mary Briggs, orchestra president and CEO, said Russell's two-year contract requires him to conduct eight evening concerts, three matinees and the "Symphony Under the Stars" for the 2012-13 season that begins in October.

As guest conductor, Russell increased attendance and interest, Briggs said.

"There is no question in my mind he will become a wonderful asset to expanding public enthusiasm for music and the arts on Hilton Head and the surrounding region," she said. "His passion is infectious."

Russell served as director of music at the Windsor Symphony Orchestra in Ontario, Canada, for 11 years. From 1997 to 2009, he conducted the "LinkUP" educational concert series at Carnegie Hall, made famous by conductor Leonard Bernstein. He met his wife, Thea, while serving as associate conductor of the Savannah Symphony Orchestra in the early 1990s.

A native of Ohio, Russell also has worked as guest conductor with numerous distinguished ensembles, including the New York Pops, New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Russell said he looks forward to using his positions to create partnerships between the Cincinnati Pops and the island orchestra, including opportunities to introduce and allow young artists to perform with both.

He said he also plans to explore "the deep musical roots" of the area's Gullah culture through orchestral art. He noted "Kumbayah" was composed in the region. The song means "Come By Here" in Gullah.

Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin, who was present for the announcement, said the arts play a "critical role" in the island's economic development.

"We need to recognize that art has a transforming and enriching effect on people's lives," he said. "The folks we would like to be here, we have to be able to offer them this kind of artistic outlet."

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  4. Meet Hilton Head orchestra's guest conductors: April 3, 2011
  5. Hilton Head Symphony asks donors to help lift it out of $50K hole: March 23, 2011
  6. Dispute over orchestra director leads to flurry of newspaper ads: Dec. 6, 2010

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