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Affectionate Farewell for JMR

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Jul 31, 2006 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2006

The kiss – wet because he was soaked with sweat after conducting Dvorak’s "New World" Symphony – was for CSO librarian Rebecca Beavers, who presented Russell with a bouquet of flowers. The wave was for the crowd, which showed its affection with a lengthy, cheering, ovation.
   It was a fitting public acknowledgement of Russell’s 11 years with the CSO, a distinguished record including creation of its structured "Sound Discoveries" education program, "Classical Roots: Spiritual Heights" series in African-American churches, pre-concert "Classical Conversations," "Home for the Holidays" Christmas show and innumerable podium dates, from Lollipop Family Concerts to Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve concerts.
   Music director since 2001 of the Windsor Symphony in Ontario, Canada, Russell, 46, has matured into a powerful conductor, as he demonstrated Sunday on a program including a vigorous, tongue-in-cheek "Candide" Overture by Bernstein and the CSO debut of violinist Tai Murray.
   Murray, 24, an artist diploma student at New York’s Juilliard School and winner of the inaugural (1998) Sphinx Competition for black and Latino string players, made an extraordinary impression in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. It was a hard act at Riverbend, considering the noisy river traffic, but she did it with supreme grace and self assurance.
   Clad in a long yellow gown, she projected a velvety tone full of nuance and expression (her violin was a Stradivarius on loan from Juilliard). There was nothing overdone about her playing, just pure, unforced lyricism allied with a daunting technique. An experienced chamber musician – Murray is a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Musicians from Marlboro – she worked hand in glove with Russell for a precisely coordinated effect, tender in the Andante, irresistibly bubbly in the finale.
   Dvorak’s "New World" was a splendid signoff for Russell, who filled it with drama and excitement despite the all-American locusts chirping in the background. The famous Largo glowed like the colors of the sunset, and he had fun with the scherzo where he brought out some busy work in the violas to near-comical effect. He made his strongest statement in the closing Allegro con fuoco, which he opened with majesty and a great big high sign to the brasses. The return of the poignant clarinet theme, now in the violins, was saturated with color and exquisitely shaped, and he lengthened last few notes as if saying goodbye.
   In a surprise tribute from the players after intermission, violinist Stacey Woolley borrowed a page from Russell’s "Home for the Holidays" script "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" narrated to "Nimrod" from Elgar’s "Enigma" Variations – and turned it into a mock salute to the conductor. Woolley’s timing was perfect, the CSO reaching the highpoint of the music on "We love you, man."
   Russell has one more conducting assignment before leaving the CSO: two free "Classical Roots: Spiritual Heights" concerts, Aug. 28 at Quinn Chapel AME Church in Forest Park and Aug. 29 at Zion Baptist Church in Avondale. Information at www.cincinnatisymphony.org,
(first published in The Cincinnati Post  July 31, 2006)