Hanging on the walls of Russ Martin’s new office at the Helena Symphony is ample evidence of his passion for music and the three decades he’s devoted to it.
There’s a photo of him with the Temptations, a certificate of a Grammy nomination and a number of framed gold and platinum albums — all memorabilia of earlier successes promoting music.
On Monday Martin took over the helm of the Helena Symphony as its executive director, moving here from Bainbridge Island, Wash. And once again, he has his eye aimed on success.
Martin knows the symphony faces financial challenges, but remains undaunted.
“Number one on my priority list — I believe that we are stewards of the community, first and foremost,” he said. “We have a responsibility to the community that I take extremely seriously.”
“My focus is on the finances of this operation. I plan on gaining a firm grip on the economics. I intend to be aware of every cent that is coming and going. I believe … that we have a responsibility to this community and to our donors to run an organization that is above reproach and totally transparent.”
He’s no novice to the difficulties of this job.
From 2001 to 2005, he served as the first executive director of the Walla Walla Symphony, in Walla Walla, Wash. — the oldest continuous symphony west of the Mississippi River. While there, he maintained a balanced budget and managed a successful fundraising campaign.
This was no small accomplishment, since he took the helm shortly after Sept. 11 — just as the stock market spiraled downward and donor funding plummeted.
It was a job that later spurred Martin to return to school to earn a master of arts in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University, where he will graduate this spring.
“I came into this situation with my eyes wide open — with the full intent to bring about fiscal responsibility to this community, as well as continuing the artistic excellence that has occurred … under Maestro Scott’s tenure here,” he said.
“If it was someone other than Allan Scott on the podium, I’m not sure I’d be sitting here today. He has a passion and knowledge for this work that is very inspiring.”
Martin’s built a career on knowing quality music — from a variety of genres — as he’s presided over Miramar Recordings and served as a sales and marketing director for recording giant Capitol Records.
Among the musicians he’s worked with are Tina Turner, Paul McCartney, Bob Seger, Al Stewart, Alan Parsons and John Sebastian, in some cases promoting their music, in other cases signing their recording contracts.
So when he says of the Helena Symphony, “We have an excellent product,” his opinion carries weight.
“Music is truly something that is part of the soul of a community,” he said. “And from what I understand and I’ve read about this community, it’s something that has deep roots here…going back, I believe, to the Ming Opera in 1877. So music has been an important part of Helena and an important part of Montana — specifically symphonic music.”
“I’m at a point in my life — I chose this organization. I chose this job. I’m looking very much forward to becoming part of this community and helping serve and lead this organization in a manner that will make Helena proud.”
Following a national search, Martin was one of six finalists from a field of 20 candidates, said Peter Bogy, president of the symphony and chairman of its board.
The search committee, headed by Bogy, was made up of symphony board members, a former board member and members of Helena’s nonprofit community.
Martin’s experience in fundraising, nonprofit organizations and running a symphony organization made his application shoot to the top.
Following interviews with four finalists, the committee brought Martin in for a face-to-face interview in October. He also attended the Helena Symphony’s second concert of the season, featuring Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto and Antonin Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”
It was a serendipitous choice of music.
When Martin played trombone in his Oregon City High School band, they won the state tournament performing “The New World Symphony.”
“I told Maestro Scott, the second movement was done in a manner I never heard before,” Martin said. “It put a smile on my face.”
What also impressed him was Helena’s arts community.
He met the directors of Grandstreet Theatre, the Holter Museum of Art, the Archie Bray Foundation and the Myrna Loy Center.
“It made me feel like there was something here that I really needed to take seriously.”
Martin returned in December to learn more — attending the symphony’s “Christmas in the Cathedral” and “The Nutcracker.”
“One thing I’m very encouraged by — Russ didn’t need this job,” said Bogy. “He wanted this job. He fully understands the challenges he will have.”
Martin did his due diligence and was well aware that the symphony has had high turnover of its executive directors.
There have been six in the past seven years, said Bogy, however, three of these directors took the job only on an interim basis.
What impressed Bogy was when Martin “sat back and said here’s what’s wrong with the organization and here’s what you need to do. He had it nailed.”
Ed Noonan, executive director of the Myrna Loy Center, was likewise impressed with Martin.
“He’s got a strong background in both the work and the theory of the work. Even in his short time here, he started to make some good observations … that he would work hard to understand this community and work with it.”
Holter Museum of Art Curator of Education Sondra Hines, another hiring committee member, echoed Noonan’s opinion of Martin.
“He really did show his creative thinking, his thought process and how he works as a collaborator. With Allan they have a great artistic director with a great artistic vision; they’ve been looking for someone to balance that on the administrative side.”
And that’s exactly what Martin said he plans to do.
“I want to help take this organization to the same …level that Allan has taken the music part. He has elevated the quality of the music this community is hearing to a level that is extremely impressive. I want to …follow his lead on the administrative side of the coin.”