The Classical Station’s interview with Michelle Di Russo for Preview!

Interview with Michelle Di Russo
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credits: © )

As Associate Conductor of the North Carolina Symphony since July 2022, Michelle Di Russo has shown her propensity for spotlighting new composers, creating engaging Pops and educational concerts, and emphasizing bilingual productions. This week during Preview! she speaks with Caleb Gardner, The Classical Station’s Music Director, about her experience becoming a conductor, as well as her organization, Girls Who Conduct.

CALEB: You started off your career in show business. How does that history influence the way you think about classical music and your audience?

DI RUSSO: As an Assistant Music Director you focus mostly on the audience engagement concerts. So you take care of the Pops concerts, the family concerts, or young person concerts. I believe those have way more audience engagement than if you’re just doing a standard classical concert. The audience is there with a different purpose, and you need to provide that entertainment. That’s where I believe that having been a performer in musical theater really gives me an advantage in knowing how to relate to that audience, how to talk, and how to feel comfortable doing things like acting. There’s a lot of acting and engaging with the audience that’s not as nerve-wracking to me because I’ve been a performer–an actor and a singer and dancer. So in that sense, I think I have a huge advantage.

CALEB: Tell us about the point at which you decided, “Conducting is what I’m going to do.”

DI RUSSO: I was taking dance lessons and I listened to classical music, so I had always been in a relationship with it. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to pursue musical theater professionally. I also wanted to continue studying at university, so I decided that I was going to study conducting because it was offered at one of the universities in Argentina. I was more invested in musical theater, and I got into a professional musical theater company. I thought that was my life’s dream, but I was very disappointed with how little musical or artistic input I had in the projects that we were doing. But that year, I conducted an orchestra for the first time for a final exam. We had to go through the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony without letting it fall apart. When I stood there and I felt the energy from the musicians, the sound blowing in my face, the control and the impact I had through everything I did with my hands and my face and my body, I was just like, this is it for me.

CALEB: What’s your mindset and your approach to your audience when you are about to lift the baton?

DI RUSSO: It depends on what concert I’m doing. If it’s a Pops concert, I know that people are there to have fun and they want to hear good music, but they also want to hear your personal stories and about your connection with the music. With classical subscriptions, the audience is there to listen more, but I think they still want to hear from you and have some understanding of who you are. We’re moving away from having the maestro be the god-like figure of an orchestra.

CALEB: Can you take us through the process of preparing for a performance? 

DI RUSSO: It takes a lot of work. We’re learning and going through a lot of repertoire each week. Sometimes we have two different programs in one week and that’s a lot of music. I have to be very organized about when I start studying and what music will require more or less time. 

Marking my score is one of the biggest things I do to make sure I’m organized. I mark meter, colors and dynamics, and any unexpected things that I keep missing. It’s all about making decisions—about the dynamics, articulation, what kind of phrasing I want in this melody or countermelody. The last thing we do is figure out the gestures, what we’re going to do in what spots. People probably think it’s the other way around, right? I also research the history of the piece. After that, then we go to rehearsal.

CALEB: Not too long ago, I interviewed Maestro Prieto, and he talked a lot about the North Carolina Symphony as an educational force. The symphony takes its role in education very seriously. Could you tell us about your role in the community and the educational work of the symphony, and about the mission of your organization, Girls Who Conduct?

DI RUSSO: We have a curriculum design concert that we take to schools around the state. I actually curate the programming, and I have my own script for how I teach the elements that make up music and how I introduce the different kinds of instruments. There is quite a structure to it. But as I do that I’m also thinking, if I have one kid who is going to listen to an orchestra once in their life, what will catch their attention, what will they like to listen to again, what will spark interest in what we do? I want them to feel like they’re being a part of it. So I ask questions all the time and make sure that the students are listening and we go over the things we’re learning together.

Girls Who Conduct was an organization I put together with other female conductors during the pandemic. It was the perfect time to start something like this. It comes from the frustration and disappointment we’ve all experienced at the bias there still is toward women in leadership positions. We started wondering what we would have liked to have had that would have made us more confident or stronger in pursuing music when we were teenagers. This organization is focused on helping and mentoring girls who are going through high school or starting college, girls who are curious about conducting. We do this mentorship program online where we talk about all aspects of the career–how to develop your curriculum, how to score study, what the profession really involves, what paths you can take.

Join us for our full interview with Michelle Di Russo at 7 PM on Sunday, March 12th. Download our app, stream online on, or turn your radio to 89.7 FM.