Hilton Head Symphony guest conductor likely 'the one'

John Morris Russell speaks during a news conference when it was first announced that he would be the principal guest conductor for the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, in 2011.
John Morris Russell speaks during a news conference when it was first announced that he would be the principal guest conductor for the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, in 2011. Sarah Welliver

In a departure from previous plans, the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday handed its baton to a "principal guest conductor" who is the front-runner to become its next music director and conductor.

John Morris Russell -- whom orchestra officials said is among North America's most celebrated conductors -- is scheduled to perform six concerts on Hilton Head during the upcoming season, which begins in October. If that trial run goes smoothly, orchestra officials expect Russell to succeed outgoing music director and conductor Mary Woodmansee Green.

Russell said he plans to elevate to the next level the almost 30-year-old orchestra, which began with mostly amateur performers but has since become entirely professional.

He said he considers the orchestra an extension of Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser's desire to create a top-notch resort on what was once a sleepy barrier island, and he said he intends to make Hilton Head famous for its music as well as its beaches and golf.

"I believe a world-class community like Hilton Head deserves a world-class symphony orchestra," Russell said during a news conference at First Presbyterian Church, where the orchestra performs.

The orchestra's board stirred debate among supporters when it voted in September to end negotiations on extending Green's contract beyond June. She has led the orchestra since 1998.

At the time, orchestra officials said they wanted to attract a more diverse audience with a broader range of programming. A group that supported Green has campaigned to reverse the board's decision.

In October, the orchestra announced plans to invite five finalists -- along with a series of other guest conductors -- to perform on Hilton Head before naming a new music director in March 2012.

The board decided to alter that process because Russell clearly stood out among more than 200 applicants for the job, board chairman Ed Parrish said.

Parrish said continuing the application process would have been like inviting lesser players to a basketball tryout against all-time great Michael Jordan. Parrish said orchestra officials were impressed with Russell's resume and enthusiasm for engaging the community in the orchestra.

"We think he will be a great ambassador, not only for the orchestra but for the island," Parrish said.

The orchestra has made the change of plans clear to other candidates, executive director Mary Briggs said.

Russell's six performances next season will include four of the orchestra's regular concerts, as well as the March 2012 International Piano Competition and the April 2012 "Symphony Under the Stars."

Orchestra officials plan to invite different guest conductors to lead each of the five concerts not directed by Russell next season.

Russell said he wants to work with local schools to integrate music into their curricula and is interested in gearing a series of shows to families. He also said he hopes to celebrate the island's Gullah heritage through music.

Russell, 50, a Cleveland native and father of two, is music director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra in Ontario, Canada, and recently was named conductor designate of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

He plans to perform in both of those places in addition to Hilton Head next year before his contract with the Windsor orchestra expires. Thereafter, he plans to split his time between Cincinnati, where he will conduct pops music, and Hilton Head, where he will focus on traditional symphonic music.

Russell has ties to the region. He met and married his wife, Thea Tjepkema, in Savannah; was associate conductor of the Savannah Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1990s; and said he considers that city a "spiritual home."

As a guest conductor, Russell has led the orchestras of Toronto, Houston, Detroit, Indianapolis, Dallas and Minnesota, Hilton Head orchestra officials said. He also conducted the Oregon Symphony, the Colorado Symphony, the New York City Ballet, the New York Philharmonic, Miami's New World Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

Russell said he looks forward to working on Hilton Head, where he said residents are exceptionally passionate about the arts.

"We're going to see if the magic happens," he said. "I have a feeling it will."