During a year with little to no opportunities in the conducting field, Argentinean-born Arizona State University music alumna Michelle Di Russo has been awarded two esteemed conducting fellowships. Di Russo has been selected to participate as a conducting fellow in the 2020-21 Project Inclusion with Chicago Sinfonietta and the Dallas Opera Hart Institute for Women Conductors.
Di Russo earned her Doctor of Musical Arts degree in orchestral conducting from the School of Music, Dance and Theatre in spring 2020.
“These fellowships will make a difference in my professional career, the skills that I am developing and how I position myself as a conductor for future job opportunities,” Di Russo said. “It seems more crucial now than ever to partner with such prestigious organizations to gain insight on how they, and I in the future, innovate and adapt to the changes in our industry.”
Project Inclusion is Chicago Sinfonietta’s groundbreaking program dedicated to changing the face of classical music by combining talent and mentorship to develop diverse and emerging musicians, conductors and arts administrators by eliminating institutional bias due to ethnicity, race and socioeconomic status.
The Dallas Opera Hart Institute for Women Conductors addresses the gender imbalance of leadership on the podium by advancing the careers of women in the most visible position in the orchestra. Since 2015, more than 500 female conductors from 40 nations have applied to be trained, advised and supported by the initiative. This year, 72 applicants from 17 countries applied as conductors or administrators, with seven women selected as conducting fellows. The two-week virtual residency includes masterclasses and presentations Feb. 8–19, 2021.
Di Russo said she previously applied several times to The Dallas Opera Institute Fellowship, only to be rejected after making it to the final round.
“When I found out I had finally made it, it felt like a dream come true and a rewarding lesson in determination,” Di Russo said. “Being recognized by this organization, and to be given the opportunity to work with gifted and renowned conductors, mentors and administrators, will definitely be a highlight in my career.”
Di Russo’s conducting career began in 2012 in Argentina while pursuing a degree in orchestral conducting. At the same time, she was part of a successful professional musical theater company and focused on a professional career as a dancer and singer in musical theater. A final exam in a conducting course required her to conduct Beethoven’s famous “Symphony No. 5 – First Movement.”
“When I stood there and gave the first downbeat and felt the weight of the orchestra under my baton, I told myself, ‘This is it,’” Di Russo said. “After that moment, and even after being offered a national tour contract, I left the theater company to focus all my efforts into being the best conductor and musician I could be.”
Di Russo credits ASU for providing her a wide variety of tools to be competitive in the job market while preparing her to adapt and innovate in a rapidly changing profession.
“Michelle was the first DMA student that I accepted during my tenure at ASU, and I knew immediately during her audition that this was a special talent,” said Jeffery Meyer, director of orchestras and associate professor. “I also remember during our interview that she stated she wanted to change the world through her work on the podium. She is well on her way to doing that, and I could not be more proud of her work and development. I will follow her career with great joy.”
Under Meyer’s guidance for three years, Di Russo said, her studies and position as assistant conductor for the ASU Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles were crucial in gathering experience and knowledge on the podium.
Di Russo said she was also able to perfect her opera conducting by assisting Brian DeMaris, director of Music Theatre and Opera and associate professor, in several productions, including conducting Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” and as music director of the Opera Lab for two years.
Her advice to students is to take the time to explore their passions and interests and have a variety of skills that will make them stand out from others and show them a path for success.
“My professors – Meyer, DeMaris, Jason Caslor, Kay Norton and Daniel Bernard Roumain – helped me to believe in myself and see how, as a conductor, I can reach out beyond the podium and have an impact in our society and community,” Di Russo said. “ASU allowed me to witness firsthand the power that music has to send a message of unity and strength that lies in the diversity and uniqueness of human beings.”
While at ASU, Di Russo served as assistant conductor on ASU’s 2018 production of Bernstein’s “Mass” and premiered “This Land” by Carlos Simon in the ASU Symphony Orchestra and the ASU Gammage collaboration “Towards a More Perfect Union.” She was also assistant conductor for the Phoenix Youth Symphony and a cover conductor for the Phoenix Symphony.
Di Russo was also selected for the summer 2020 American Austrian Foundation Ansbacher/Farber Conducting fellowship as part of the renowned Salzburg Festival, and has been a fellow in the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the United States Army Band Pershing’s Own Workshop and Cortona Sessions for New Music in Italy.