As the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra begins its season, it starts with a renewed spirit, more concerts and the introduction of its new principal conductor, John Morris Russell.
The 31st season is marked with education initiatives spearheaded by Russell. These include concerts and workshops in area schools, as well as talks before each show.
"We're very excited," said Mary Briggs, president and CEO of the orchestra. "He's passionate about working the schools and sponsoring and supporting youth in music."
Russell began these education initiatives Wednesday with a workshop at Hilton Head Island Elementary School. He also will be working with middle school students at the Hilton Head Island Boys & Girls Club on a "Musical Monologues" project, culminating in a performance Nov. 2.
"He's passionate about working with young people, growing our young audience and providing services in schools," Briggs said.
Russell was named the music director and principal conductor in March, after he served as a guest conductor in February 2011. Previously, he was the conductor designate of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. He also served as music director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra in Ontario for 10 years. Russell replaces Mary Woodmansee Green, whose contract wasn't renewed at the end of last season after about 14 years as conductor. At the time, symphony officials expressed a desire for more diverse programming and new ideas to expand its audience.
In the past, the orchestra has taken guest artists to schools for recitals. Russell plans to work with area teachers to support young talent. Students could have opportunities to attend rehearsals and sit with performers during rehearsals throughout the year.
Russell also will conduct pre-concert talks. About an hour before shows, the new maestro will help introduce attendees to the background of artists and the music, as well as give the audience a sense of what to listen for. These talks are open to anyone with a ticket to the concert.
"We have a lot of fun things coming up, and we feel he is going to be tremendous for education," said Sarah Bergin, director of marketing.
The orchestra's effort to attract more young audience members is not only evident in the schools, but also in the schedule. The HHSO added three Sunday matinee concerts to its season this year to accommodate young families and others who prefer to stay home on Monday nights.
In addition to the talks and the Sunday concerts, music lovers can purchase Maestro Connection tickets, which add more interaction with Russell with an after-concert event at Robert Irvine's eat! restaurant.
The buzz has worked already, with season tickets at an all-time high, Briggs said. This year, the HHSO has sold 900 season tickets. Last year, Briggs estimated sales at about 830.
"It's a pretty significant change," she said.
The orchestra's current venue, First Presbyterian Church, can hold 900 comfortably but can accommodate up to about 950 people, Briggs said. The three Sunday shows will add some opportunities for more people to attend.