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John Morris Russell and the addictive magic of Christmas music

For some of us, Christmas music isn't just something that comes out in December, or November if you're pushing it.

For some of us, Christmas music is a hobby gone out of control.

I personally have several hundred Christmas records -- vinyl LPs ranging from opera to jazz, Bach to Bob Goulet. And behold, I have received tidings of great joy: I have a kindred spirit in John Morris Russell, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's Principal Pops Conductor.

Russell, who is coming to town this week to conduct the BPO's popular Holiday Pops concerts, can't begin to count his Christmas music collection. But tally up the CDs, cassettes, and vinyl records, and it could well be in the thousands.

John Morris Russell, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal pops conductor

"When I was a kid, we listened to the Magnavox while opening presents, entertaining," he said. "You had your snow tires put on at Firestone or Goodyear, and you came home with that year’s LP. Also we had a 'Messiah,' with Colin Davis and the London Symphony -- we literally wore that thing out. It was always a real eclectic mix of different holiday tunes that were always playing.

"So we all grew up, went off to college. And then as a young adult, when CDs started coming onto the scene, for kicks and giggles I'd go to yard sales, and I'd see all these Christmas albums for 50 cents. They were just really interesting. So I started buying a lot of them," he said, as I nodded understandingly.

Russell laughs about how he learned to, as he put it, separate the wheat from the chaff.

"I still have markings on all these LPs and CDs,  identifying the really good tracks," he said. "When you’re going through these things -- pretty much any LP, or any Christmas disc you buy at Walgreens at $1.99, or at the truck stop -- the thing is, you're pretty much guaranteed there's at least one good track. When you hit pay dirt, you find that one that's got a dozen great tracks."

The good tracks would often make it onto the annual Christmas tapes Russell would make to give to an ever-widening group of friends. He doesn't make the tapes any more -- children and professional obligations got in the way -- but the music is still relevant in his life.

When he holds vocal auditions, he asks singers to do "O Holy Night."

"It's such a challenge," he said.

And the Christmas music he has collected continues to influence him as he plans concerts and creates orchestral arrangements.

"I consider my Holiday Pops concert my Christmas card for the world," he said.

As a game, I asked Russell for his top five Christmas albums, besides the obvious like Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Nat "King" Cole. I wanted to see how his favorites compared with mine.

We had one top favorite in common -- "Christmas With Mario Lanza."

"Christmas with Mario Lanza." "Just what a voice," Russell said. "And because he had such a huge and clear tone, it would stand up to full orchestra treatment. The orchestrations are just mammoth and audacious. And it is really heartfelt. Crank it up."

Russell also named  Ray Charles' "The Spirit of Christmas." "Every single track is just awesome -- really fantastic, swinging arrangements. Here's this tune, written a millennium ago, yet Ray Charles re-imagines it as a swinging jazz tune, this funky rock groove, whatever. He has all these really creative grooves. 'What Child Is This?' is just so hot."

And "A Christmas Celebration" by operatic soprano Kathleen Battle. "Her voice is like, these molten, golden tones -- just so beautiful."

Leon Redbone's "Christmas Island." Every track is fantastic. He does a lot of tunes that often get looked over -- 'Babes in Toyland,' 'Christmas Island.' It’s so intimate. You can almost hear the fire crackling in the background."

And "Songs of Christmas." from the Alan Lomax Collection. "Guitar, dulcimer, a lot of voices, a little fiddle, shape note singing, Appalachian music, it's all over the map."

Russell failed to mention my top pick -- "The Music of Christmas," by Carmen Dragon and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony. But he makes up for that by including Dragon's glistening, silver-screen take on "O Tannenbaum" in this year's Holiday Pops. That is side one, track one. I know it by heart.

Speaking of "O Tannenbaum," a Christmas LP by that name is also on my list. This album kicks around Buffalo a lot, thanks to our big population of German-Americans. Our family would trim the tree to it when I was growing up.

And recently, I acquired another German Christmas record that's a keeper. It's by the Gunter Kallmann Chorus, major players in the surreal, competitive world of 1960s easy listening, and it includes a riotous version, in German, of "Jingle Bells."

Christmas music is universal, sometimes hilariously so. Russell loves World of Music albums, which he described as "mishmash of all over the world, Latin stuff to African styles." He also laughed: "I’ve got this one recording of a Swedish choir singing 'White Christmas.'"

But there's a serious side to this world of Christmas music. Russell grew emotional, pointing that out.

"Here I was growing up in the 1960s, an era of great social change," he reflected. "You would get that Christmas album, the Goodyear Christmas album, and they would show pictures around the wreath.

"And there was Dean Martin, and right next to him, Mahalia Jackson, and right next to her, the Korean Orphans Choir, then George Szell, then the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, then Sammy Davis Jr. ... This was the world we all wanted to live in! All the talk of peace and earth and harmony, in an age of great social unrest, and this was the one thing you could take home that actually had people from all walks of life, singing about the same thing. To me, that was a metaphor of what Christmas is all about, what America is about.

"When we’d bring home that album every year, it was much more than just the music."

PREVIEW
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Holiday Pops
Performances are at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 15, 8 p.m. Dec. 16 and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 17 in Kleinhans Music Hall. Tickets are $36-$86. Visit bpo.org or call 885-5000.

 

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