Andrew Russo: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Public Servant

A portrait of an artist as a young public servant: Andrew Russo is a seemingly singular figure in American politics today.

While it has not been uncommon for Hollywood movie stars (like Ronald Reagan) or pop music artists (such as Sonny Bono) to enter the political fray, it has been exceedingly rare for classical musicians to do so. Andrew Russo is breaking that mold; a grammy-nominated, Juilliard-trained pianist who has collaborated with some of the greatest composers of our time (including George Crumb and Kaija Saariaho among many others), he is also currently a Republican candidate for state senate in New York's 49th District. Transcending the image of classical music as a niche industry for only a tiny elite few, Russo's life and work shows that it can be used as a means to bring people together. Notes On The Road spoke with Russo, a fourth-generation Central New York native, about his work as an artist, how it lead him to his candidacy today, and what issues he hopes to fight for as a New York State Senator.

Update September 14, 2010: Andrew Russo has won his primary and is now the Republican nominee for NY State Senate!

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"Andrew Russo: The Public Servant"

Your story is compelling and unusual - I couldn't find many other examples of pianists who turned to politics. How did you first become involved in music and decide that was the direction you wanted to go in?

I started playing when I was four. I think it was my grandmother who got me started a little bit just playing little folk songs on the piano. She was Ukrainian born and had a piano in her home and she would teach me little German, French, and Russian folk songs. She suggested to my parents that I start lessons, my parents bought a piano, and off I went. But in terms of starting to think about music professionally, that happened more as a teenager. By the time I was eleven or twelve, I had a very ambitious teacher that was putting me in competitions and a lot of those were turning out successfully and leading to opportunities to perform as a soloist and other things where you start to get a little bit of a taste of what the profession might feel like.

I remember distinctly at thirteen having this epiphany moment where I realized I wanted to be a professional musician and was going to do whatever it took and started to kind of have a concrete understanding of what that meant. I began working very, very hard with a series of goals in mind, one of which was trying to get into Juilliard.

You've had so many collaborations with outstanding composers: George Crumb and Kaija Saariaho, amongst others. Did a time come when you decided to make working with living composers a priority, or was it a gradual evolution?

It was more gradual. I definitely was very, very involved with the core repertoire, standard repertoire, all the way through school. I did a little bit of exploration with contemporary music, but I wouldn't say it was something that I considered a specialty or a focus. I did meet a couple composers at that time that I worked with, and there were a couple of contemporary pieces that I heard other pianists play, let's say from the last fifty or sixty years, that I would enjoy and try to learn myself.

But the idea of actually building a career around it didn't occur to me until later. I finished up school after being there for five years doing a combined bachelors and masters program, and at the end of that period of time, there was an anonymous grant process that the school used to have where they award a free year of studying in Leipzig, Germany at the Mendelssohn Hochschule, and the Hochschule does the same; we basically swap a student for a year of graduate or post-graduate study. So this prize just kind of happened. It wasn't something I applied for, just one of those things where you realize, "well, I guess this is something I should try, this just kind of fell in my lap."

I went overseas to a place where I knew nobody, had a little bit of familiarity with the language, but it was pretty much a "jumping into the ocean" experience, and it was fascinating. I learned a lot during that year. One of the things I started to realize more and more is this sort of cultural identity when you're living in a foreign country as a foreigner and it's a place you don't necessarily get by speaking English, you really have to function in a foreign language and build yourself up from zero. It taught me a lot about what it means to be American and that even reflected in my musical choices at that period of time. I started looking at American music in a different way and started to feel more and more drawn towards it, and I think that's when the idea of building a career around American music and composers started to come together.

How did these experiences lead to the founding of your three-man band, Real Quiet?

That came a bit later. I'd say that the first part of the story really was that as a pianist, I started to explore the repertoire that was there written by composers who were living and working in the United States, or maybe in a couple cases Americans outside the United States, and I just kind of started doing an exhaustive study of all that was out there in terms of American piano music. And as I built an understanding of what that was, the historical arc of American piano music, and started to really get involved in dreaming up projects that would be composer-specific or thematic in some way, I started to kind of build out upon that approach, which is to say I went from looking at just piano pieces to things that were a little bit bigger: chamber music, concertos, getting involved in commissions.

One of the musicians that I met along the way was a guy named Felix Fan, a cellist from San Diego who also lived abroad for a while. In fact, he had kind of a similar study arc to me in the sense that he started out in an American music school and then ended up in Germany for a while then France. We were roommates in Paris for a couple of years. The idea came really from him, of putting together a group that would be a non-traditional hybrid between a so-called classical piano trio and kind of more of a jazz trio using percussion and a lower-pitch string instrument with a piano. Then it would exist and perform American music, primarily commissions.

Of course, with that combination of instruments, there's not much already in existence, so there were some pieces out there but not a ton, and the idea was to create repertoire, to premiere it and record it. And of course, we have worked with composers from several other countries, but the main focus really has been American composers.

How did this coincide with your philanthropic activities within central New York? How did those things work together, if they worked together?

I had this year in Germany then I sort of decided to go about trying to building up this career specializing in American music and American music projects, and actually after that year in Germany, I moved to Paris where I thought I was just going to spend a year or two studying. I ended up spending about five years centered there. After getting there in the beginning and starting to throw out all these projects and ideas that I wanted to get together, it became clear that one of the best ways to organize and produce a lot of these activities was to have my own kind of entity that I could present performance activities, recording activities, educational activities through.

So I started an organization back in my hometown of Syracuse that was dedicated to anything related to the education, performance, recording, and documentation of American music, particularly new American music. The philanthropic side of it was that we would invite guest artists who were either colleagues of mine that I perform with or outside groups to perform in Syracuse at a particular venue and for the two or three days leading up to that performance, the artist would travel around to different schools within our city school system here, which is largely schools in under privileged neighborhoods where arts budgets are always getting cut. We would raise money from community foundations and other community sources to fund these residencies, which were a hybrid of educational art reach activities and then a community concert at the end.

A lot of the music and groups that were involved in that early effort started to generate activity around this particular venue, which was at Le Moyne College here in Syracuse, and that actually turned into me getting hired by the college to build a music program, which they didn't have at that point. So this Music Journeys organization really started out as an independent non-profit, grew into an organization that had a partnership with Le Moyne College, and that grew into the music program of the college, all the while staying dedicated to contemporary music, particularly American music. At these events in the schools, we presented music by a really wide array of composers working in classical or jazz mediums. These concerts have been tied into recording projects or larger efforts related to a lot of exciting new music that's been created in the last five or ten years.

What is the reaction you've seen in the community in terms of these outreach efforts? Do you feel like you've really reached some people that otherwise would never have exposure to music like this?

Absolutely. In the case of these schools, we're going into places where you're dealing with kids in some cases have never heard live music at all. So having someone who's a fairly well known, let's say, jazz saxophone player or classical pianist or singer of various genres, coming into their schools is an exciting thing for them. They're basically getting kind of a lecture performance for free in their school. What we did a lot when we would go to these schools is offer free tickets to students, teachers, administrators who basically papered the hall for a lot of these concerts, so the educational outreach activities built an audience, and a very individual audience for each concert event.

It was a really successful program. It was one of these things that really could have taken flight; however, then I got hired by a college, and my focus had to turn to the students enrolled at the college and building the program up within that campus. So after a few years of having this really aggressive effort to reach out to schools and tie it into a concert series, that effort got more centralized on the campus. We continued to do outreach, but a little bit less. It's one of those examples of small non-profits that are able to do some great things for a few years and then, because of the limits of people and resources and whatnot, are not able to translate that into a long-term mission.

What do you think should be the primary goal of an artist within the larger community?

Nowadays, I think the most useful model I would offer would be for artists to be flexible enough to see their skills as something that they could translate into a number of different mediums. For instance, I think it would be great to see efforts in communities to leverage the visual art market, the people that live and create art whether it's something they do for a living or as a hobby, to channel that into public design efforts and public art efforts. I kind of foresee these projects that would utilize those people's skills in a way that they might not necessarily have imagined upfront. They might be more dedicated to creating art for exhibits or other specific circumstances.

But the cities I've been to where I've seen excellent incorporation of creative design and public art, in a way it really enlivens an atmosphere in a community and makes people want to get out and just elevates the overall feeling of the community landscape.

I'd love to see an effort like that, particularly in the town where I live, and I know there's been some efforts in that regard. I think that it might take some artists getting involved in politics to bring this to realization. That'll be interesting to see moving forward. As I walk around the city I live in, I get these visions of how we could incorporate so many of the great people I know living in this community in efforts to expand our public art and improve our public design outlook. And I'm sure there are a lot of communities that have the same potential.


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"Andrew Russo: The Artist"



So now to make the transition to Andrew Russo the political candidate. What lead you to become more politically active and to seek candidacy for state senate? Was there an issue or event in Albany that drove you? What inspired you to take this new path?

It was kind of unexpected. To be honest, I was not politically active at all until about a year and a half ago. I guess I decided at the end of 2008. I had been here three or four years, and it sort of hit me that most of the people I had grown up with were gone. Most of them weren't even living in New York State, let alone central New York. I started to think about my own kids. I had a child at that point and another child on the way, and I guess the real inspiration was looking at my own kids, looking at the fact that most of my peers were no longer here, and wondering what that meant for the future of my family and my community when you start losing those bonds between generations of families and sort of no longer become a community. You just become a place that people live when they work and then don't live when they don't, and you lose that longer-term bond between families and institutions. I really saw that happening in a way that made me feel that people from my generation needed to start getting involved and trying to fight that back.

That was really the original inspiration, but because I had no political experience, I thought that the best way to get involved was to help other candidates. So I started volunteering for some political efforts and very quickly started being encouraged to run for office myself, which I suppose was because of the fact that people are looking for young candidates, people who are capable of these jobs but who are maybe new and fresh bringing in other approaches.

I certainly didn't have my mind set on the state senate seat. It just sort of evolved. I was interested in getting involved, mainly about the future of the community, and through the study of issues and being involved with other candidates, it was clear that the most impact can be made at the state level. So much of what happens at the state level deeply impacts our communities. I was observing the person that was representing us in this area, and I felt that there were other approaches that should be offered. I think that's part of what elections are about: offering a choice between what's being provided and what you would provide if you were given the opportunity, and then letting people decide what they prefer.

What do you think may have caused the trend of people leaving the area? What could you do as a state legislator to help reverse that?

I'd say there are two big things that are driving people away. One is, for people my age, there's a lack of jobs that seem to show upward mobility, so you get a lot of people who want to work their way into an institution where they're going to be able to move up the chain and advance their life, and they're not seeing that here. So they're going other places where those types of jobs are being created.

The second thing is the tax burden. We still live by this model of funding almost everything through local property taxes here in New York State, and so the overhead on people's homes is so high that I think often for younger people, it is quite hard to get your home-owning and family life started with that overhead to meet every year. People look at places where they're going to have a better chance to get off the ground in the early years. What can we do from a legislative point of view? I mean obviously, it's sort of a typical political mantra, particularly the republican party, to talk about lower taxes, less spending, more jobs. Those are the things that everyone says.

I think we have to put real limits on our budget process. I think we need to look at some of the things other states have done. Other states are, after all, the greatest laboratories for different efforts that may or may not get borrowed by other states or incorporated at the federal level, things which are used in states such as Missouri and Washington, where they literally put a hard cap on both local property taxes and on year-to-year state spending. They literally put limits on their government's ability to spend money and their ability to take money out of their property owners' pockets to pay for things, and then you have to deal with priorities. You can't just keep kicking the can down the road, letting programs which aren't effective or aren't maybe necessary. You have to make cuts based on priorities, which would allow other areas to continue and grow. We're not doing that in New York State; we're just continuing to pay for everything, shaking out every couch in Albany for loose change, or sweeping dedicated funds, doing whatever it takes to get through each year. And that compounds the problems for the year after.

That in turn drives up taxes, and as people leave and less people are left to pick up the tab, it gets even worse, and then even more people leave -it turns into an awful spiral. I think that without putting strong and clear limits on the budget process, lowering peoples' taxes and their costs of doing business so they can invest in their companies and in their employees, [revitalization] is just not going to happen. We can't do it with a year-to-year approach.

Do you have any specific plans for, if you get to Albany, what types of spending you would be inclined to cut?

When you look at our state budget, there are two areas that drive spending. One of them is our MedicAid Program, and the other is our pension system. I think we need reform in both those areas if we are ever going to find a sustainable budget. I think that by putting limits on spending and property taxes through hard caps, you could force action in a lot of these areas. You can force ways to lessen the year-to-year increases that we pay in the pension system. To redress how we handle MedicAid. Maybe we should look at an eligibility requirement or offering fewer services. Maybe we should look at higher eligibility standards in general or some combination of the two. I feel we need to look at those two areas if we want to create significant recurring savings in moving back towards sustainable budgeting. Education is also an area that I think needs reform due to the fact that pensions are tied up with school budgets. Pensions, benefits, and salaries for teachers are what drive school budgets each year, and I think that again, by capping local property taxes, which traditionally are a huge part of funding for these schools, that we will have to address the school budget issues that have caused tax increases in all of our communities.

We just have to be more efficient. I have two kids, and I want them to be well educated, but we have to be efficient. We can't get to the point where we are trying to fund these things at the expense of the people who live here - and then they leave. That defeats the purpose. We also can't have these year-to-year budgets which cut things for the kids, because we have made commitments to the teachers in terms of salaries and benefits that at some point we are no longer able to afford.

Definitely Medicaid, Pensions, and Education - and I think that by dealing with Pensions, we can solve a big problem that exists in Education budgeting. Those are the three large areas of expenses.

You spoke about a need to cap property taxes. Do you have plans, if necessary, to generate additional revenues if that cap is put in place?

In capping property taxes, I am looking more for spending cuts than additional revenue sources. One of the things we will see is that if we are able to decrease the burden of what people have to pay on their homes, they will have additional cash which they could feed into other areas. That will result in sales tax revenues, so we will probably see an uptick in this area. The ultimate goal here is really less spending, as opposed to finding new revenue streams for continued spending.

If you consider that in the last ten years the spending side of our budget has grown from 80 billion dollars to a proposed 135 million this year, that's more than 70% growth over the course of ten years. Even if you adjust that for inflation it's well beyond what we should be doing. We really need to get closer to inflation-adjusted levels of spending if we want to be able to move forward in a sustainable fashion. We have a 9 billion dollar hole in our budget this year, which is part of what is holding it up. Next year's projected hole is 14 billion dollars, which is more than 10% of the budget. We're getting into scary territory here.

So really, this can't be about generating revenue streams. I don't think we can even look at that until we are able to recover from our current state. First priority: cut spending.

You've talked quite a bit about economic issues. How do you see your candidacy in relation to national trends? Do you see it in relation to the Tea Party movement?

I think the Tea Party Movement is maybe a good analogy just because a lot of the people involved in that movement are coming into the political process for the first time in their lives, regardless what their age might be, and so am I.

I'm coming in here without a political past, and I'm not running for office because I'm looking for a political future -- I'm not harboring secret ambitions to become a Congressman or anything else. I really see this as an opportunity to try and get involved for a set period of time. I'm a believer in term limits. I see myself as a capable citizen who'd like to serve for a fixed period of time and accomplish a fixed list of goals, and get back to that idea of citizen representation as opposed to career politicking. I think that's part of what has destroyed our system - people who are more interested in being elected into the job than really doing it. I think we need to shed that somewhat.

I think that some groups might see my candidacy as someone who is really putting himself out there, someone who wants to do this job in a different way, and is focused on doing it - even at the risk of losing it - and doing it properly, instead of positioning myself as something else, or as the more traditional political type that I think many people are sick and tired of.

You're running as the Outsider Candidate. Many political pundits have talked about this being the Year of the Outsider. Do you think that there is the potential for a conflict of interest in that regard, given the fact that you have gotten the endorsement of the Albany Senate Republicans as well as some high-profile figures in your home district? Also, is there a danger in of splitting the conservative vote in the Republican primary?

In response to the first part of the question - these types of endorsements are things you would rather have than not have. Obviously, if you're running in a primary and the other person has all of these endorsements, that's probably not a very good indicator for your candidacy. I've been very fortunate that I've been receiving all of the major endorsements in this race. What I really have seen out there in talking to all these people who endorse me, as they get a sense of who I am and what I stand for, is that these are establishment people who "get it," that we have to change our ways, even in the types of people we offer as candidates. If they were interested in a typical type of candidacy, there are other options out there. I believe that this campaign has been successful because we have pulled together large corporate parties and smaller grassroots parties as well. These are all citizens in rural communities who are struggling to support my campaign at the $5 level, and then of course we have some great business leaders who have been very generous. We have really been fortunate to pull all of that together.

On the political side, we have these Tea Party groups, and 9/12 Project groups and grassroots groups, who are helping us with all kinds of gifts of time and resources to the campaign, and then we also have these established political figures who are endorsing my candidacy. Again, I think it really speaks to the broad coalitions we have been able to build in the broad sense, financially and politically for this campaign. Obviously, now the larger goal is trying to sustain that, and turn it into a government coalition.

In the primary, in terms of splitting the vote, usually what ends up happening is that people want to be with the candidate who is likely to win, and they might support the other person for a period of time. But after a while, if it becomes absolutely clear that we're the stronger candidacy and going to win this primary, I think things will break much more our way in terms of pressure on the other person to work with us instead of against us. And that's what I would really love to see. I think that if we can continue to build on the support we have, with the advantages we've built financially and politically, we will accomplish our goal of seeing this all the way to the end.

Do you plan to support your opponent if he wins the primary?

I am in a situation where I have been nominated by the Conservative Party to be their candidate, and I made a promise to be their candidate all the way until November, so I will run as a Conservative, no matter what happens in September.

And you don't see any danger of being "Scozzafava'd" as it were? (Dede Scozzafava, in her Republican primary run for the 122nd Congressional Seat, was defeated by Conservative Party Candidate and Tea Party favorite Doug Hoffman, amid allegations of her being too liberal for the Republican party. This split the Republican vote, and the general election was won by Democrat Bill Owens, the first Democrat to hold this Congressional seat since the Civil War).

[Laughs.] In this situation it would be kind of odd because obviously I represent more of the conservative "strain" in this race. The situation with Dede Scozzafava was more a product of the fact that there wasn't really a process, and there were Republicans who felt she had been an insider choice and there hadn't really been a discussion or broad involvement. That's what caused that rift. In my case, really it's the fact that I gave my word to the Conservative Party, when they nominated me, to run regardless of the primary outcome. They basically said: "We're not the Republican Party, and we nominate someone to run on our line because it is our line. It's about us as a party, our viability and our future at the ballot box." It's one of those things. I gave my word.

Have you felt a change in the environment from the time you began your campaign up until now? Trends shifting? Moods shifting?

You know, it's funny. I started to work on this candidacy a little over a year ago, and I would say that the level of anti-incumbent sentiment certainly has grown. That wasn't necessarily something that I anticipated, but I have to say that when I did get involved with doing this, my instincts told me that our outlook for 2009 and 2010 was one that was going to - at the very least - enhance the idea of Outsiders running for office. It's turned into an anti-incumbent year, even for people who are possibly doing a very good job. This is certainly something that has shifted in my direction.

What I wasn't expecting to happen was seeing myself being embraced by key political people, whether it be at the state or local level. Would people see me seriously as a political candidate? Would they back their words up? That has been very interesting to see coming together.

I've felt a shift within myself from being a person who was telling people he was running for the State Senate [laughs] to actually feeling like a candidate for State Senate. I know that sounds like kind of an abstract concept but basically I think it does take time to settle in on every level. To feel confident at what you're doing, to feel capable. I think the progress that we have all made on the campaign over the past year - I think we are feeling very confident, knowledgeable about the issues and the solutions to our problems. And now I feel that we have the political and financial support to carry this through and actually win.

Have you found any difficulty in terms of connecting with the public as a classical musician? I think unfortunately classical music can be perceived as an elitist activity - have you run into any difficulty with that?

Only with people's perception of it. My father ran a small produce company for over thirty years, and he was always involved in the produce industry. I grew up around all different kinds of people through his business, the farmers he worked with or people who worked for him. I grew up in Syracuse, and went to school there, with so many different people from all walks of life. It was a very diverse environment. I've traveled all over the world and lived in some very diverse neighborhoods. I lived in Paris, which was so full and rich in so many ways.

I've always seen myself as someone who is equally comfortable sitting in a pub with somebody who works an hourly job as I do sitting in a nice home or board room with someone who makes a ton of money, and try to sell them on an idea or a project or - supporting my campaign, nowadays.

I certainly haven't felt a disconnect with people, because I feel that the life that I've led and the background I have allows me to really communicate and enjoy interacting with pretty much everybody. It's really only the perceptions that I've encountered in some cases, where people might decide before meeting me that I'm going to be this or that way. In most cases - not all, in some cases people just make their decision - I've been able to crack through that.

You describe yourself in one interview as a "modern-day Mark Russell" - and the question that we're all dying to know the answer to is: will we see some of that? And regardless of whether or not we do, if you win, what do you think your future musical plans might be?

The Mark Russell comment was based on the fact that at campaign events, if there's a piano there, I'll play it. Mark Russell was a guy I grew up watching, I even had the pleasure of performing with him at Bill Clinton's second term inaugural week at the Fords Theatre, and so I always loved him because he played the piano and he talked about politics and he was very funny. So at events, I'll play the piano and talk about politics, although unfortunately, most of what I have to talk about is . . . not very funny. [Laughs.] Because we're in pretty dire times here. But I've often thought about how it might be interesting to have a piano on the Senate floor and to have little musical clips to illustrate your reaction to proposals or things like that.

But in all seriousness, how I think the music will fit in moving forward is the way that anybody's career fits in with legislative responsibilities. Of course many people who are there treat them as professional opportunities as opposed to service opportunities - I think you see a lot of co-mingling of their personal business and their politics. I think that's something I might offer which is refreshing. How often am I really going to find a conflict-of-interest in being a professional musician and a legislator? Certainly not going to be through giving piano lessons [laughs.]

If I am chosen to serve, I'd probably have to cut down on how much I play for a period of time, and at the same time, I imagine that when I walk away, that it is also something that I may be able to pick up again. I'm obviously not going to stop meeting people. If anything it might allow me to stay publicly out there as a figure in the community and be able to reclaim a lot of the musical work when I step aside. So that would be my goal, to scale back and then do more once I have served.

I think it's great to be able to have a professional life where you can be that flexible.