Orchestra preview: A pair of performances this weekend celebrates the storied careers of two Columbus conductors

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From the April 18, 2013 edition

Maestros Ronald Jenkins and Timothy Russell, of the Columbus Symphony Chorus and the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra respectively, have both been making music with their orchestras for more than 30 years. Both have been integral in bringing and keeping symphonic music in Columbus. And both men’s organizations are extending a big thank you their way this weekend. Here’s how.

Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s “Masterworks 11: Brahms’ Requiem”

“I was very humbled, very honored by the recognition,” Ronald Jenkins said when he learned that the Columbus Symphony Chorus board would commission a piece of music to celebrate his 30th season leading the choir. “It’s wonderful to think some really beautiful and exciting piece of music’s going to have your name on it.”

But for a commission written in his honor, Ronald Jenkins has gone out of his way to make it not just about himself but about all who sing.

First, he recommended composer Stephen Paulus write the work.

“He’s the premiere composer today for works for choral and orchestra,” Jenkins said. “His music is always clean and clear and joyful.”

The two exchanged emails for a year and a half figuring out what to use as the lyrics for the piece, Jenkins said.

“We decided early on that we wanted it to be about music because I’m dealing with a very diverse group of people in the chorus. I wanted it to be beyond any religious text and be about something we all have in common,” Jenkins said. “We decided on the love of music and joy of singing. This [commission] is to honor the chorus as much as it is to honor me.”

The final four-movement, 16-minute composition, called “Of Songs and Singing,” incorporated poems about music by an internationally and generationally diverse group of writers — Rumi, Shakespeare, Whitman and Henry Heveningham.

As involved as he was with picking the lyrics and theme of “Of Songs and Singing,” Jenkins had only one demand: At least one movement needed to be a cappella so that choruses without orchestral accompaniment could perform something from the composition made in his name.

That would be movement No. 2, the section inspired by Shakespeare’s line about whispering music in “Henry IV.” Its subtle intensity is followed by a movement of quirky woodwind trickery mimicking birds (inspired by Rumi), a stark contrast to the power of the first movement, which employs a full orchestra and chorus (inspired by Whitman).

“The last movement is a go-for-the-goal-line type of thing. The instruments are all back; it has a shape. Each movement adds something to the message,” Paulus said. “Music is many times a celebration. It’s a celebration of life in some form, and I think this piece hopefully will do that. Hopefully it should just express [Jenkins’] joy of making music.”

“Of Songs and Singing” will make its world premiere before the symphony takes on a work by Samuel Barber (“Knoxville: Summer of 1915”) and a German requiem by Brahms (“Ein Deutsches Requiem”).

ProMusica Chamber Orchestra’s “Bravo, Maestro!”

“I think after working at any project for 35 years, and I’m 57, so that’s more than 60 percent of my life, I’m approaching this weekend with mixed emotions,” said Timothy Russell by phone from his Phoenix home. “I clearly have great pride in what we’ve all accomplished together, but I feel a tinge of sadness when people talk about this concert as my last.”

Technically, it’s only the ProMusica co-founder’s last subscription concert, meaning he’ll be back for guest appearances in the next couple years to borrow the baton from the chamber orchestra’s new music director David Danzmayr, former assistant conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

“Staying involved is fun and exciting for me personally, but organizationally it allows the organization to keep a connection to me, its founder, and its early days,” said Russell about why he’ll remain available for ProMusica even as he continues conducting Phoenix Symphony collaborations with the Ballet Arizona and teaching at Arizona State University.

Russell has plenty of insight to offer. He formed the orchestra at age 22 with his friend Richard Early, and saw it through economic downturns (Russell said he enjoyed the fundraising aspect of running ProMusica, a part of the job he was deft at) and musical achievement (under his leadership ProMusica debuted 58 new works and more than 100 regional and world premieres).

For his Columbus grand finale, Russell picked compositions by his favorite composers — “Overture to The Impresario, K. 486” by Mozart, “Variations on a Rococo Theme” by Tchaikovsky, and “Symphony No. 7 in A major” by Beethoven — as well as a world premiere of a virtuosic cello showpiece by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis.

“For me, the music always came first,” Russell said. “I hope people would think that I was always there in service of the music and the ensemble.”

Ronald Jenkins, conductor of the Columbus Symphony Chorus.

Timothy Russell, music director and co-founder of ProMusica Chamber Orchestra.