Monday, November 22, 1999

Conductor's dream assignment topped by dream of lifetime

The Associated Press

        A backup conductor got a dream assignment when he was suddenly thrust into leading a concert at a classical music Mecca in Austria.

        Then, a long plane flight later, he watched the birth of his first child.

        John Morris Russell, associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Pops, is still marveling at the turn of events.

        In September, he led an orchestra, singers and choirs in the music of American composer George Gershwin in the historic hall where the Vienna Philharmonic plays, then flew to join his wife in Cincinnati for the birth of their son, John Parsons Russell.

        “To do that and to be there and conduct a concert there, in any normal set of circumstances, you'd have bragging rights for the rest of your life, or at least for the next year,” said Mr. Russell, 39.

        “But then to have it superseded, within 48 hours, by the birth of a child — all of a sudden, it completely pales in comparison to bringing new life into the world.”

        The job assignment happened because Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel came down with vertigo and was unable to fly to be guest conductor of the Johann Strauss Festival Orchestra.

        Mr. Kunzel has 100 recordings and frequent stints as a guest conductor, including the July 4 concerts of the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.

        But even he had never conducted in Austria.

        Mr. Russell, who makes classroom appearances and gives talks about classical music while biding his time as an understudy, was briefed by Mr. Kunzel but did not have time to read the musical scores until he was on the jetliner.

        Mr. Kunzel was reluctant to miss the trip, Pops spokeswoman Rosemary Weathers said. “He just knew he had to take care of himself,” Mrs. Weathers said. “Once he made the decision, he knew it was the right decision. He kind of moves on.”

        The occasion was a concert titled “An American Salute to Vienna,” designed as a cultural-exchange event combining the music of Johann Strauss Jr. and Gershwin. It also included music by, among others, American composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Actor Gregory Peck narrated Mr. Copland's “A Lincoln Portrait.”

        Austrian state television broadcast the concert, and the producer, Toronto-based Attila Glatz Concert Productions Inc., recorded it for later release.

        Mr. Russell shared the podium with Austrian conductor Peter Guth, an interpreter of Johann Strauss Jr.'s music.

        Mr. Russell, relieved to find that the Viennese musicians were fluent in English, soaked up the atmosphere. He marveled at the music of the Viennese performers with American soloists and the Vienna Boys Choir and the Boys Choir of Harlem.

        The Viennese treated Gershwin's music reverently, Mr. Russell said.

        “They were just playing it like it was Brahms. I became completely overwhelmed by emotions, listening to this beautiful music,” he said. “There was no time in my life that I was more proud to be an American, giving the best of our culture. That was what the whole thing, the concert, was about — a cultural exchange.”

        The Viennese honored Mr. Russell by choosing him to lead the traditional encore, Johann Strauss Sr.'s “Radetzky March.”

        After receptions and toasting with the Viennese musicians, Mr. Russell returned to his hotel room at 5 a.m., packed and headed to the airport for the flight through Paris to Cincinnati.

        His wife, Thea Tjepkema, 33, met him at the airport and heard about his experience before he lapsed into a deep sleep at home.

        Their child's birth was not expected until on or about Oct. 6. But when Mr. Russell awakened Sept. 22, his wife told him she had been pacing for hours — allowing him to sleep — and that her contractions were six minutes apart.

        Their son was born that night.


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