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Celebrating a New Season of the Pops with the BPO

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra recently announced the lineup for its 2019-2020 BPO Pops series, slated to kick off in late September. The series, masterfully curated by Principal Pops Conductor John Morris Russell, takes audiences throughout the spectrum of styles that comprise the Pops.

Audiences will have the chance to see the amazing spectacle of cirque performers paired with Latin rhythms at Cirque Fiesta. They’ll get to hear the voice of Tony Award-winning Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr. alongside their local orchestra. They’ll also witness three talented vocalists lend their voices to tell the full story of the Queen of Soul, from her early roots in gospel and blues, to R&B jazz, rock and soul.

“I think in terms of the BPO, you look at the next year’s Pops season and you’ll see a broader array than we’ve ever done before,” Russell said. “From the tributes to ragtime, Leslie Odom, Cirque Fiesta – these are all ways that we welcome everyone to come to the concerts and celebrate American musical expression.”

John Morris Russell, BPO Principal Pops Conductor

The formulation of Russell’s programming begins with his personal musical ethos, rooted in Duke Ellington’s famous saying that “if it sounds good, it is good.” From his perspective, the Pops encompasses music that not only sounds familiar to many, but also allows the performers and the audience to connect with a wide range of musical styles. And from a historical perspective, it’s a beautiful way to reconnect with our nation’s history.

“Essentially, the Pops is an expression of American music,” Russell said. “”American music is born in the African American musical ethos, and everything stems from spiritual blues. Country western, bluegrass, blues, jazz, rock and roll, the music of Broadway – the rhythms and harmonies that we find in the music of the African American church are embedded in everything we call American music. We want to get back to our roots and express the totality of the American musical experience through our Pops programs.”

Russell’s appreciation for the Pops and its diversity originated with his own upbringing, which he refers to as “an environment where there were no walls between musical styles.” He grew up on the East Side of Cleveland, a product of a public school system that gave him the opportunity to become fully immersed in music at a young age.

“We were blessed to have a school system that had music in everything,” Russell said. “We had an elementary school orchestra that had violas, double basses, the whole nine yards. When I got to high school I was the consummate ‘band geek,’ participating in marching band, jazz ensemble, orchestra, pit orchestra for the school musicals. If that wasn’t enough, I also had a garage band that played Chicago, Earth Wind & Fire, 50s dance tunes. I was always very involved in music -making.”

It’s no surprise that Russell became a music major in college, where he got his first experience conducting. For Russell, it provided a rush unlike any other. “You hear this great music of the genius composer who created it, but as a conductor, you’re actually there in the driver’s seat,” he said.

He went on to work with any ensemble he could, from teaching youth as a substitute teacher in the Cleveland public schools, to directing church choirs, to youth symphonies. After working with orchestras throughout the country and Canada, Russell landed a position conducting the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. He was invited to perform with the BPO as a guest conductor and instantly felt a connection. When Marvin Hamlisch passed away, the BPO’s search committee offered Russell the position of Principal Pops Conductor.

“I felt this really great spirit with the orchestra in Buffalo,” Russell said. “Even being from Cleveland and living in Windsor, Ontario, I had never been to Buffalo. It felt like home.”

As the BPO’s Pops conductor, Russell is consistently working to use the Pops programming as a means to break down barriers for audience members who aren’t “regulars” at the orchestra. Part of that work consists of sharing the stories behind the music.

“If there’s one thing that’s markedly different from a pops conductor and a classical conductor, it’s that during our concerts I’m always engaging with the audience – giving them background on what the music is about and its connection to things that are happening around us,” Russell said. “We like to be informative, not formal. And it opens the door to itself, because we’ve developed a sense of trust. The audience may not know the guest performers or the content, but they know our program will always engage and entertain.”

Whether you’re a long-term BPO patron or a guest who will be walking through the doors of Kleinhans for the first time, the BPO Pops performances are a great opportunity to enjoy the abundance of styles in American music. Show tickets can be purchased individually, or you can purchase a subscription to the entire Pops series here.

See below for a full schedule of the 2019-2020 Pops Series:

Cirque FIESTA!

Friday, September 27, 2019: 10:30 a.m.

Saturday, September 28, 8:00 p.m.

The extraordinary artists of Cirque de la Symphonie return to Kleinhans Music Hall performing ethereal choreography to spectacular music with a captivating Latin flair. Aerial flyers, acrobats, contortionists, strongmen, and other all-stars of exceptional cirque programs throughout the world will transport you to a place of wonder as John Morris Russell opens the 2019-2020 BPO Pops season!


The Paul Simon Songbook

Saturday, October 12, 2019: 8:00 p.m.

Paul Simon changed the face of songwriting, from his years with Simon and Garfunkel through his solo albums. Experience his timeless songs including Bridge Over Troubled Water, Me and Julio Down by The Schoolyard, The Sound of Silence, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Graceland, and Rhythm of the Saints.


Byron’s Ragtime Jazz

Saturday, October 26, 2019: 8:00 p.m.

Byron Stripling rejoins the BPO bringing his incomparable talent, wit, and charm to Kleinhans for another evening of jazzy musical stylings. The high-energy conductor and powerhouse trumpeter showcases the distinct influences of Jazz, Ragtime, and Blues on the American songbook.


Pops Goes to the Movies

Friday, November 8, 2019: 10:30am

Saturday, November 9, 8:00 p.m.

The BPO brings silver screen soundtrack selections from your favorite action-adventure films to life, along with a few surprises.


The Beatles Classical Mystery Tour

Friday, November 22, 2019: 8:00 p.m.

Saturday, November 23, 2019: 8:00 p.m.

From early Beatles music through the solo years, the exceptional portrayal of the Fab Four in Classical Mystery Tour brings the music of The Beatles to life, as four remarkable artists join your BPO in celebration of the 50th anniversary of both Abbey Road and Yellow Submarine.


John Morris Russell’s Holiday Pops

Thursday, December 19, 2019: 10:30 a.m.

Friday, December 20, 2019: 10:30 a.m.

Saturday, December 21, 2019: 8:00 p.m.

Sunday, Dec 22, 2019: 2:30 p.m.

Mr. Christmas brings his musical pack to Buffalo filled with spectacular new arrangements, merriment, and fun in his not-to-be-missed holiday extravaganza that will delight audiences of all ages. It’s Western New York’s most cherished family holiday tradition.


RESPECT: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin

Saturday, Feb 1, 2020 8:00 p.m.

It takes a cast of three sensational vocalists to tell the FULL story of the one and only Queen of Soul. In her early childhood, Aretha’s father led the Friendship Baptist Church on Buffalo’s East Side before permanently relocating to Detroit, where she first sang during church services at age 10. Aretha Franklin went on to define contemporary Gospel, Blues, R&B, Jazz, and Rock over the last six decades.

Nobody Does It Better: The Music of Marvin Hamlisch

Friday, February 14, 10:30 a.m.

Saturday, February 15, 8:00 p.m.

Longtime friend and collaborator, Kevin Cole, joins John Morris Russell in tribute to the former BPO Pops conductor and composer. Marvin’s favorite singers join the BPO to celebrate the genius of one of America’s most beloved songwriters. The annual Sweetheart Dance tops off the evening dedicated to pure American entertainment.


The Doo Wop Project

Friday, March 27, 2020: 10:30 a.m. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020 8:00 p.m.

The stunning resurgence of pop a cappella traditions today has roots in the music of the 50s and 60s. The tight harmonies and soaring melodies of groups like The Imperials, The Belmonts, and The Platters influenced two generations of singers from the Beach Boys and Temptations to Boyz II Men and Pentatonix. Join the BPO for a retrospective of brilliant vocalism.


Leslie Odom, Jr.

Saturday, April 25, 2019: 8:00 p.m.

Be in the room where it happens as Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr. lights up Kleinhans with an evening of unforgettable music! The Tony® Award-winner’s symphonic show is a love letter to the American musical tradition.


Patriotic Stars and Stripes

Friday, May 22, 2020: 10:30am

Saturday, May 23, 2020: 8:00 p.m.

Western New York’s premier Memorial Day tradition of inspiring music and pageantry, with the brilliant showmanship of John Morris Russell. The internationally renowned USO Show Troupe makes its BPO debut in this red, white, and blue spectacular.


Leading Ladies of Broadway

Saturday, June 13, 2020: 8:00 p.m.

The Great White Way has produced a host of iconic female talent, from actresses and singers to dancers and composers. The BPO and Broadway veterans perform the signature songs of those who have graced the footlights.


This content is part of a sponsored series in partnership with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.


Written by Sarah Maurer

Sarah Maurer

I moved to Buffalo to attend Canisius College in 2007 and began writing for Buffalo Rising as a journalism intern in 2010. Working with Newell and meeting numerous entrepreneurs, activists and everyday folks who were working to make their city better made a huge impact on my decision to stay here. After witnessing all the positive development and grassroots initiatives happening in neighborhoods throughout the city, I was inspired to pursue a term of service in AmeriCorps and a career in Buffalo's non-profit sector. I currently work in the housing department at the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center of WNY and am excited to be a part of their ongoing efforts to revitalize the Broadway Fillmore neighborhood. I also volunteer as the project coordinator for Artfarms Buffalo. I continue to write for Buffalo Rising because I love having the opportunity to stay connected to those working toward positive changes for the Queen City.

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