John Morris Russell doesn't do cookie cutter.
As music director and conductor for the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, Russell likes to build concerts around themes -- often putting a great deal of thought and planning into each of the concert's programs.
"I really like to find pieces that relate to one another so that they tell a story," he said by phone recently.
So when the orchestra opens its 34th season Monday night with the yearlong theme of "Passion and Music in the Lowcountry," the audience will be treated to Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien," Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol" -- chosen with the beauty and majesty of the Lowcountry in mind.
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It's all part of the orchestra's efforts to better relate to its audience and continue building a more regional appeal.
"So many people think of us as the island's orchestra, but we are the region's orchestra," Russell said.
Above: The Hilton Head Island Symphony Orchestra (Jean-Marie Cote/Submitted photo)
Started in 1982 as a volunteer organization with a handful of musicians who enjoyed playing classical music, the orchestra soon began to grow and expand. By the early to mid-'90s, the group had evolved into a professional ensemble offering auditioned slots and was attracting musicians from outside the area.
Today, the symphony has about 70 musicians under contract.
The orchestra's offerings have expanded as well. Within the last four years, the symphony has doubled the number of concerts it performs, after experimenting with the addition of a popular Sunday matinee show.
The move was particularly appealing for families and daytrippers who wanted to be home before dark, Russell said.
"It's gotten so popular that we began offering a Sunday matinee with each of our concerts," he said.
The orchestra also has continued to develop its music education program, called "Music Bridges," now in its second year.
Music Bridges takes orchestra members into classrooms around Beaufort County where students in third through fifth grades interact with professional musicians, learn about music and specific instruments. Then in the spring, students are treated to a full concert.
Russell, considered a leader in orchestral educational programming, modeled Music Bridges after similar programs he has either led or created.
"It's deeply satisfying to see these kids relate to orchestral music for the very first time and do so with such joy," he said.
And word seems to be getting out about the orchestra's expanded offerings. Attendance is up, and musicians from such cities as Atlanta, Charlotte, Chattanooga and Cincinnati are also signing with the orchestra.
"We're attracting some of the best musicians in the Southeast," he said. "... (And) we're reaching more people with our concerts than we ever have before."
Which is why Russell makes the case that if you haven't been to a concert in the past year or so, you might just want to take another look.
"If people haven't heard the Hilton Head Orchestra lately, they haven't heard the Hilton Head Orchestra."
IF YOU GO
The Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra opens its 34th season "Passion and Music in the Lowcountry" at 7:30 p.m. Monday at First Presbyterian Church, 540 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head Island.
Internationally acclaimed pianist Jon Kimura Parker will perform George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" in between selections by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
The concert is an hour, and an opening night gala will follow.
Highlights from the orchestra's 2015-2016 season include a winter-themed concert in December featuring music from the popular children's film, "The Polar Express," and a Valentine-themed concert set for February featuring Debussy's "Claire de Lune" and Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" among other romantic pieces.
Other themed concerts will feature the works of Dvorak, Strauss, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and many others.
Tickets for the opening night and gala range from $30 to $45.
Details: 843-842-2055, http://www.hhso.org
Follow reporter Mindy Lucas at twitter.com/MindyatIPBG.