John Axelrod- An American from Angers : A conversation with a creative conductor at the Palace of Arts in Budapest (BM)
John Axelrod has been based in Europe for quite some time now, the eclectic Texan’s most recent appointment being that of chief conductor of the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire, which he has whipped into shape, working wonders for their audience attendance (and becoming fluent in French in the process!). His career time-line is a little atypical, and this has no doubt enhanced his work as conductor. Although he had completed a BA in music at Harvard, even studying for a while with none other than Leonard Bernstein (as he never tires of pointing out – read an interesting account of how they met here) he didn’t choose to make classical music his profession at first. Instead, he landed a job as director of the Robert Mondavi Wine and Food Center in Costa Mesa, California, where he created wine education classes, organized art exhibitions, concerts, and all sorts of events. He then went on to work for Atlantic records, with artists such as Marc Cohen (the Grammy new artist winner in 1990) and Tori Amos, whom he discovered together with Bruce Hornsby, as well as the Smashing Pumpkins.
So his biography sounds fascinating, and as I wait for him backstage after his concert with the Dresden Philharmonic in Budapest (read a review here), I am much looking forward to meeting this unusual artist. But alas, we don’t get off to a good start, since after he realizes I’m a fellow American and asks me where I’m from, I have to apologetically concede I can’t remember the name of his hometown (it’s Houston), although having looked through his (new age style) website, of course I should. “Yes, you should!” he counters, adjusting his red silk scarf, and it doesn’t sound like he’s joking.
My opening question turns out to be yet another mistake. Based on what I’ve read about him – including information from his agent, who solicited this interview, about last summer’s world tour with Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock and an upcoming Beethoven’s 9th remixed with technobeats – he is obviously open to mixing “serious” music with other, novel elements, which I think is intriguing. But the minute I unwittingly utter the word “crossover” he is annoyed and takes me to task, explaining painstakingly that “what I do isn’t crossover, it’s presenting classical music in an interesting way that preserves the integrity of the art involved”. Oh well, I certainly hadn’t meant to suggest otherwise, but quickly decide to let him choose what we talk about next.
No problem there, since Axelrod is a man with a mission – several missions, actually, one of which has been to elevate his Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire (ONPL) to non-provincial status, which he has done by enhancing its quality, innovative programming, strategic planning and media presence. And he’s achieved his goal much more quickly than anyone would have believed possible, with the ONPL already counting 10 thousand subscribers at present, making it one of the most subscribed orchestras in the whole of France, if not in the entire world. “Our audiences include people from 6 to 86 years of age, and often entire families,” he tells me enthusiastically, “and I believe in family values!, which doesn’t mean I’m a Republican, or even a Democrat for that matter – what I’m talking about here is the importance of love and music in the home.”
How exactly does he intend to preach these values in the immediate future? “With a program we have developed in collaboration with Jean-François Zygel- to me he is today’s French version of Bernstein, and he’s famous for his “Leçons de Musique”. For us, he is going to compose a “concerto for orchestra and family”, involving a music competition for families, and although only one member of the family will need to be able to play an instrument, the entire family has to participate! The three families competing in the finals will be observed by something like reality TV cameras. We’re also planning a program called ‘Amadeus’, a combination of theater and music inspired by the play of the same name. Educational programs like these are nothing out of the ordinary for orchestras in, say, major German cities, but they are new to the Pays de la Loire…”
And what about actual concerts? “It’s very exciting to be working on changing attitudes to classical concerts here in Europe, where people tend to be more open-minded than in the US. To me, a concert should be a Gesamtkunstwerk” (yes, he knows his Wagner, too – but seriously, he was Eschenbach’s assistant in Bayreuth at one point and conducted Tristan & Isolde at Nantes Opera in 2009) and here is another mission Axelrod is dedicated to: cultivating audiences for live concerts. “To many young people, sitting in a concert hall feels a lot like being in church, and that has to change – we need to offer them a more interactive and exciting experience! As I often say in concert introductions: the etiquette at the concert hall that everybody knows – sitting down, not coughing or clapping between movements – was created in the late 19th to early 20 th century, during the times of dictators. So people sat down and shut up. Clapping during movements doesn’t bother me, and the same goes for most musicians as far as I know. Young people really like the freedom to be able to express themselves in the concert hall. With the ONPL, when we played Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite together with Duke Ellington’s Harlem Nutcracker, I even had a 16-year-old dancing the Valse des Fleurs with me on the podium during the encore!
And what about the Beethoven remix that prompted my earlier remark? “Yes, that is a piece specially composed for our orchestra by Gabriel Prokofiev (Sergei’s grandson), which we’ll be performing at the end of June in Angers and Nantes!, the Ode to Joy for orchestra and electronica” (read about Gabriel Prokofiev here ) “along with Beethoven’s original ninth and a new composition by Iraqi-American composer Karim Al-Zand. Of course this doesn’t mean we’ll be neglecting our core repertoire, on the contrary, and we’ll be playing with more and more distinguished artists in the coming seasons, for example with the Swiss violinist Rachel Kolly d’Alba, and with the Labèque sisters at our “Ameriques” gala concert scheduled for next year.”
“This year is the ONPL’s 40th anniversary, and after the standing ovations we earned at the Salle Pleyel with Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang, it’s clear that this orchestra has finally arrived. Now it’s important to ensure we build up the substance to back up the hype.”
How does he feel about living in France? “I love it, and I divide my time between Strasbourg, where my wife (the TV journalist and moderator Annette Gerlach) and daughter live, and Angers where the ONPL is based. Of course there are cultural differences one has to deal with – there’s no such thing as the American work ethic in France – no wonder some people call Air France “Air Chance” – but nonetheless you can certainly earn recognition for hard work, and it’s infinitely rewarding to learn about another culture, because there is so much to learn – our history in the US is Europe’s modern art! Just as it’s extremely rewarding to try to give back – in this case to my orchestra – what I can based on my own culture. In the US, you’re expected to show you have a pedigree in art by being on the conservative side, but not here in Europe, and that’s very liberating. At the same time, I may be turning into the prodigal son who can no longer go home.”
Moving on to collaboration with other orchestras, Axelrod tells me he has become one of the principal conductors of ‘La Verdi’, founded by Riccardo Chailly. “I’m especially pleased about this because of the Verdi year coming up in 2013. La Verdi is a world-class orchestra that is young in spirit and soul. And then there’s OrchestraX, the ensemble I founded in Houston, which focuses on performing classical music for the GenerationX market – and they have no problem performing Beethoven, by the way, and I don’t mean crossover Beethoven. Both are up against the same challenges in terms of financing that all private orchestras will have to deal with more and more in the future. My goal for any orchestra is to contribute to its financial sustainability and my specialty is audience development – the same as my mentor Leonard Bernstein. He taught me that since there is good and bad music out there, I should just do the good music and forget about the rest. That’s an opinion that may not be popular with the industry, but then crossover is for the industry.” Obviously by now I wish I had never mentioned this aspect of his work (although it would have been hard to avoid) or at least called it something else…
“Another thing Lenny (Bernstein, that is) taught me is that music conveys tolerance and reconciliation, and above all that it speaks the truth. That’s why I played with a Polish orchestra at Auschwitz, and it’s why I’m here in Budapest, on a tour of former iron curtain countries, with a former East German orchestra. All art, but especially music has the capacity to tell the truth, because it speaks to the heart and soul.”
John Axelrod is a conductor with a solid background not only in professional music performance but also in artist management and development, event planning, record production and even music publishing. Even if that makes him just as qualified to be an agent as a conductor (or a ‘360-degree-artist’ – the new catchphrase he has invented for himself), he seems unduly worried about being taken seriously as a classical musician because of it. But there is absolutely no need for that, his work speaks for itself, and the prodigal son was recently back in the United States performing one of Bernstein’s most emotional (self-indulgent?) and controversial compositions: the ‘Kaddish’ Symphony, with the new libretto by Samuel Pisar performed by the author himself (read some interesting comments on this piece here: http://www.weta.org/fmblog/?p=3178).
If you ask me, the more American artists capable of crossing back and forth over the Atlantic, the better. So let’s hear it for that kind of crossover, at least!