A rising star in the classical music world, conductor Michelle Di Russo is famed for her compelling musicality and her passion for contemporary music. She grew up in Argentina playing piano, dancing, and singing. Her résume includes acting roles in musical theater and television in addition to a growing list of conducting appearances in orchestra and opera performances from Buenos Aires to Dallas to Prague. Di Russo is the recipient of this year’s Joel Revzen Conducting Fellowship.
You’re passionate about new music. Why?
My favorite aspect of new music is that it requires strong collaboration. Bringing a new work to life is a collaboration between composer and conductor, and also between the musicians and their approach to the music. I love being able to ask the composer questions in real-time, suggest ideas, and experiment with sounds and colors with the orchestra. It forces me to be extremely creative and to understand and honor the composer’s vision.
At Festival Napa Valley you’re conducting Ansel Adams: America and the Season Finale, as well as serving as assistant conductor for the Festival opera, L’elisir d’amore. What makes this opportunity so compelling?
As young conductors, we are always looking for new ways to challenge ourselves and to learn as much as we can. It is an amazing opportunity to assist an opera and conduct a masterworks finale concert, all in three weeks. Festival Napa Valley pushes artists to our full potential, and I am grateful for it.
Does your Argentinian-Italian heritage give you any unique perspectives on classical music? On life?
I think it does. My background has helped me understand adversity differently and approach each opportunity with wonder, gratitude, and passion. Leaving my family and country behind was a hard decision, but I have never regretted a minute of it. The United States has given me opportunities that years ago I could only dream of. So when I perform, I try to be present, and give it my best. Family and community play a big role in Argentinian-Italian life, and I try to bring that sense of community with me everywhere I go.
You’ve been an assistant conductor for the Phoenix Youth Symphony Orchestra. Why is working with young people rewarding?
Young people are crucial for keeping our art form alive and evolving. My favorite thing when working with young people is to rediscover pieces that I know quite well but are new to them. It is an unforgettable experience for both of us and helps me approach the piece with fresh eyes.
During the pandemic you co-founded Girls Who Conduct. Why is it important to bring more women into the field?
Representation matters. I learned about Marin Alsop while getting my undergraduate degree — before that I wasn’t so sure that I could pursue conducting as a professional career. She inspired me and showed me what was possible, and I hope that I and the generations to come inspire other women to find their place in traditionally male-dominated fields.
Congratulations on your recognition as Festival Napa Valley’s 2022 Joel Revzen Conducting Fellow. What does this award mean to you?
I am honored. This marks the beginning of a new stage in my career. Being recognized by an institution of this level has a huge impact on how young conductors are perceived in the field. This fellowship will help me continue to polish my skills as an assistant (working with brilliant conductors) and as a performer (I get to conduct the Festival’s Season Finale). I want to thank everyone at the Festival from the bottom of my heart for supporting my career and choosing me to represent the legacy of Maestro Joel Revzen.
Favorite food: I love making homemade pasta, specifically gnocchi.
Favorite wine: I can never go wrong with an Argentinian Malbec.
Favorite place you’ve traveled: New Zealand. We went several times when I was a child (my dad is a retired pilot), and learning about the Māori culture and traditions really opened my mind to a new world.
Dream destination: Polynesia
Wish for the future: To continue to make an impact in this world through music.