Pops: Music of the People

by David Lyman


John Morris Russell leading the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra for “JMR’s Greatest Hits” in May 2022. Credit: JP Leong

There was a time—not so very long ago—when the word “Pops” conjured up images of show tunes and, if you were very lucky, a smattering of light classics.

But in today’s music world, the reality is that “Pops” can—and does—mean just about anything. Of course, we are more than a little spoiled here in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Pops’ founder, the late Erich Kunzel, was one of the major proponents of moving beyond the old stereotype of Pops concerts. More than anyone since the Boston Pops’ legendary leader Arthur Fiedler, Kunzel broadened the scope of what it meant to be a Pops orchestra.

After Kunzel’s untimely death in 2009, John Morris Russell—one-time associate conductor of the CSO—returned to Cincinnati and championed a range of Pops programming that could hardly have been imagined a half-century ago.

Consider the trio of concerts that open the Pops’ 2022–23 season. They couldn’t be more different from one another. Yet all three of them live up to Russell’s oft-repeated mantra to “give the audience the good stuff.”

First up, on Sept. 10–11, we’ll hear the orchestra performing the Academy Award-winning score to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. A week later (Sept. 16–18), John Morris Russell will lead a rousing tribute called “Hear Me Roar: A Celebration of Women in Song.” (See sidebar on page 18.) Finally, on October 25, the internationally renowned rapper/producer/actor/activist Common will join Pops Principal Guest Conductor Damon Gupton in an evening of hip-hop, poetry and jazz.

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Damon Gupton. Credit: Charlie Balcom

“Is this not what American music is all about?!” says JMR, with such gusto that you might think he was trying to be heard in the back row of Music Hall instead of speaking into a mobile phone. To someone not familiar with JMR, that might sound like a wild exaggeration. But to those of us who have come to know him during more than two decades of service to the Pops and the Cincinnati Symphony, it rings completely true. JMR is the quintessential proselytizer for music for the people.

“You know what I love about the variety of music that we’ll be performing?” he asks. “OK, there are lots of things. But I love that it demonstrates the great sense of pride that our musicians have in being able to play it all. Jazz. Classical. Hip-hop. A Hollywood score. Whatever it is, they play the living daylights out of it.”

Part of the Pops mission is to entertain—to present music that is popular. But in his eyes, an even greater part of the mission is to create performances that appeal to everyone—POPS is about music of and for the people. It is also about dispelling preconceptions that folks might have about so many different musical genres.

There is no better example of that than the Pops’ concert with Common, the Chicago-born artist who made his name as a rapper, but has expanded his career to become so much more than that.

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Common at the 2016 Classical Roots concert.

Within a decade after his first album in 1994, Common started popping up in guest acting gigs on television shows. That led to movies. In time, he created his own production company and, in 2016, he made his debut with a live orchestra when he appeared with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as part of the Classical Roots series, with JMR conducting.

At the time, JMR admitted he wasn’t very familiar with Common’s work beyond the release of the musician’s Academy Award-winning song “Glory,” co-written by John Legend for the movie Selma.

Far from feeling slighted, Common was thrilled that JMR didn’t know him.
“That’s one of my favorite things about the position I’m in now,” Common said in 2016. “I love it when new ears and new people have a chance to hear my songs. Who knows where this will take me?”

Now, six years later, we know the answer to that question. Common was so enthused by that initial experience with the CSO, he started scheduling performances with other orchestras. Now, he does 10 or more a year.

“These performances are an excursion through the soul of music,” says Common. “There’s hip-hop and soul and jazz. And it’s all tied together with that beautiful sound of the orchestra. It adds so much depth to the sounds. And it convinces some people in the audience that it’s OK to listen, you know?”

He’s been emboldened by a particular scene in the 2021 film Summer of Soul, which chronicles the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. It took place at exactly the same time as Woodstock. But despite having a roster that was every bit as star-filled as Woodstock, the Harlem event was relatively unknown until the documentary was released.

Common was wowed by the film. But he was particularly struck by Nina Simone’s performance.

“She stood on that stage and read a poem,” he remembers. “She had so much soul and passion. There were thousands of people there, but she made it feel intimate, like a little jazz club. Usually, when you’re at a festival, you have to make the audience excited and give them the songs that they know. But she gave them what they needed. To me, that was impressive. I’m not Nina Simone, but if I can get up there in front of an audience and present a new thing, if I can help them experience something different…well, that’s what I want to do.”

Read the Pops Story Sidebar "Pops: Celebrating Women in Song"