Saturday, March 15, 2014

Have Baton, Will Travel: Conversation with John Axelrod

by Ewa Gorniak Morgan

Conductors, like commercial airline pilots, constantly travel across the globe for their assignments. This can be particularly hard on those of the younger generation in their 20s to 40s. They must arrive at their destinations full of enthusiasm and immediately begin rehearsals with orchestras of varying sizes and capabilities, performing one or two concerts and then continuing on a career path planned tightly two or three years ahead, leaving little time to spend with their families. With such schedules, they also rarely have time to write books. 

Yet, busy 40-something conductor John Axelrod has just come out with: The Symphony Orchestra in Crisis – A Conductor's View (Naxos Books in English and Henschel Verlag in German), which draws a panoramic picture of contemporary orchestras in different countries and proves that understanding an orchestra's anthropology and the way it reflects its cultural context is vital for the music-making process. And, according to Axelrod, it also enables conductors to do a better job.

I meet Axelrod at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples where he is preparing Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Born in Texas in 1966, disciple of Leonard Bernstein, graduate of Harvard and St. Petersburg Conservatory under Ilya Musin, he now lives in Europe and is the principle conductor of the Orchestra La Verdi in Milan. Even his concise biography sounds like a travelog. 

Ewa Gorniak Morgan: First off, when did you find time to write a book?

John Axelrod [responding with a smile]: We get a lot of airplane time and are often alone in our hotel rooms after rehearsals.

EGM: You have not reached the age of 50 and you've already conducted 150 orchestras across the world. How did you accomplish this and what does it say about you?

JA: It means that I never said no! [laughs] It's important to understand that for a conductor repertoire is everything. We hear it from the very beginning of our studies: repertoire, repertoire, repertoire, learn the repertoire. It's very difficult to be a specialist even though the industry itself, culturally speaking, tries to categorize and pigeonhole you. If you're Polish, they want you to do Penderecki and Lutoslawski, if you're American they want you to do Bernstein and Gershwin but we are obligated to know the core repertoire as much as we can. I've always had diverse interests which include film music, jazz, rock, contemporary music and I've done all of the above: from audience development engagements to serious subscription concerts, from being musical director in Hollywood and in Vienna to collaborating with Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang.... all these different things with different orchestras. So whether I'm 47, 37 or 67, it doesn't matter, it's a question of the available opportunities. We now have more orchestras than any other time in the history so there are more invitations, you can be younger than I am and have conducted 150 orchestras as well. The point is that all those orchestras around the world need conductors. So "Have Baton, Will Travel." 

EGM: And just like Karajan you'll have your own jet?

JA: Conductors are mislabeled as jet-set while they have to travel. One of the reasons why we're constantly on the go is that the industry itself as a business model is not allowing us to actually earn a living in a way that is commensurate with the amount of work that we do. If you just take the gross conductor's fee, deduct the taxes, then the management commission up to 20%, plus all the necessary expenses, whether it be hotel, eating out, or laundry for the frak, at the end the conductor might be left with only about 20%.... So earning a living requires literally taking as many engagements as possible, unless you also have a fixed position and can balance between the two which has been my case. I think Valery Gergiev, by the way, holds the Guinness record for the biggest number of concerts on different continents within 24 hours: starting in Japan, going to London, then to America, ending up in Japan, all in one day. 

EGM: But how can one digest so much repertoire in such a short time? 

JA: That's a good question. I think that experience pays and you get used to learning scores quickly. Conductors are students to the day they die – trying to understand the intention of the composer - but once you know the piece it doesn't require the same amount of effort to learn. When I first started it was an enormous struggle to climb that mountain of learning Beethoven's symphony, today I've conducted all his symphonies several times so I revisit the music and pinpoint those very places where I could discover something new. It's a little bit like being an explorer: the first time you dig in the ground you don't know what you'll find but once you get to the treasure you can sniff it, feel it and see the possible obstacles for the orchestra to learn the piece of music. You need a lot of practice and it is because I have conducted so many different orchestras that now I can understand how differently orchestras respond to the same piece of music. I had a great fortune and experience of working for many years with Simfonietta Cracovia in Krakow, by Krzysztof Penderecki's invitation. With Simfonietta, led by wonderful violinist Robert Kabara, as a young conductor I was able to quickly absorb the music from core repertoire to the contemporary, and through their way of working in depth and in detail, I learned how to arrive to an interpretation. I also had to memorize the music quickly because they knew it all by heart. 

EGM: You like working with young orchestras; what makes that experience special? 

JA: The very fact that they are so dedicated and involved in the music. If I said in Krakow, "It's been two hours; don't you want to take a break?” - the answer was, “No, let's play.” That's almost unheard of but many youth orchestras have a similar attitude. They are totally engaged, not yet jaded, and they are not part of the union system which would make them say, “It's time to stop, no more.” And while I respect the union system and believe that all orchestras should have the benefits that come from the union organization, I think that to some extent it has been exploited to the degree that takes us away from going in depth into the music. In Krakow, to use that example one more time, the musicians lived and breathed with music and were willing to do anything so that each note will follow another with inevitability, as Bernstein used to say. Thinking of young musicians, I've started an association called Culture All, endorsed by Unesco, the idea of which is performing the music of the greatest composers of today in the greatest locations of the past and developing the greatest musicians and public of tomorrow. That's the American part of me; I'm rather optimistic. 

EGM: What is the source of the crisis then? 

JA: Quite clearly, it's a combination of things: there is a public that's not informed and not involved, and there is a union that is the obstacle to the quality that the music is supposed to represent and stands for the quantity. You should get paid well because you play well and you should play well because you're paid well. It's symbiotic. Just like you cannot separate the artist from the patron and the other way around, there has to be an osmosis. The difference between good and great is marked by engagement and commitment. What made Bernstein or Kleiber so incredible is their willingness to live or die for one note, just because you cannot do anything else. As a conductor you live in that present moment and there is no other option than to give it your hundred thousand percent. That kind of engagement is believable. If you are asking the public to come to a concert or invest their money into a performance of a symphony that's supposed to represent the greatness of humanity and you get an orchestra that plays jaded, it's hard to convince the public that what they're doing is worth the investment. Great orchestras will survive because they represent the highest level of virtuosity, quality and tradition. 

EGM: Can a conductor be a virtuoso? 

JA: Of course. Lorin Maazel is a virtuoso with his baton, Kleiber was a virtuoso with his gesture, Lenny was a virtuoso with his extreme emotion, his love, and Karajan with his control, while Abbado was a virtuoso in his humility. What we do is extremely difficult, I know because I remember all the mistakes I made. Depending on the orchestra we may have to fix things in the score differently and take full responsibility for that. Working with an orchestra is not about power, it's not about who decides. It's about music and Kleiber was able to project the purity and innocence of it with his smile but he also demanded very many rehearsals and if he didn't get them he simply wouldn't come. He had principles while representing pureness and liberty at the same time. With Bernstein we lost the permission to be good at everything and he certainly was. When I saw him before he died he asked: “Are you conducting?” “No, maestro," I replied, "I can't follow in your footsteps.” “Too bad," he said, "It's a loss.” But if, when we were studying, I had said to him, “In twenty five years I'm going to take your advice, become a conductor and I'm going to be the one to do your Candide at La Scala,” he would have laughed, he would have pat me on the head and said, “Good boy, I hope that happens.”

It happened although I wasn't planning to be a conductor. I became one when I realized that my life was empty without making music and that Lenny was right in having great love for humanity but a great deal of disillusion with men. He and Kleiber, and many others – not that I can compare myself to them – saw the greater truth in music. Art is a way to escape, to swim with your head above water when everything around you is trying to pull you down. Look at the videos of Bernstein doing the Mahler with Wiener Philharmonic. He was angry and frustrated and throwing his baton and shouting, and there were instances when Kleiber would lock himself in the dressing room and refuse to do the concert or Karajan threatening to burn master tapes of the recordings that were profitable for the musicians because he felt taken advantage of. I go along with the Lennon and McCartney's idea, “The love you make is equal to the love you take.” I try to give a lot of love to orchestras and I'm very hurt when this message of love is betrayed. 

EGM: A Conductor's View? What is there that a conductor can see that others don't and why is it important?

JA: I address my book to the general reader, not just the industry. I try to inform audiences about the instrument called orchestra without which we cannot play that Mahler symphony or that Tchaikovsky opera. Most people in the industry don't want the conductor to say anything. Orchestras don't like when conductors talk either. The very fact that I wrote the book made some people raise their eyebrows, but my teacher was Bernstein who talked a lot and wrote many books so I thought that there was a precedent and an example to follow, which I felt very close to. In fact my next book is about conducting Bernstein's symphonies for the 25th anniversary of his death in 2015. From the conductor's podium you see all the issues facing an orchestra, from both administrative and artistic perspective, and you can expose those challenges to the public. One of the reasons why orchestras had gotten into the crisis is that the curtain was down. Most of the general public still thinks of classical music in glamorous terms. They see conductors from a mythical point of view. The reality is that we have the most expensive art form in the world in opera and classical music. When you deal with issues of cost of labor and productivity, you realize that the cost of making classical music is greater than the revenue it produces, so it depends on the support from the state or individuals. It's not just to the 1% that I write about or to the remaining 99%, it's to the 100% that music belongs to. 

EGM: What you're talking about now sounds more like a prenuptial contract rather than a love story... 

JA: Let's be clear, it is music that transcends boundaries and languages. It may be minimal and the language may be Polish, like in Gorecki's case, but it is able to penetrate the global audience and remain successful. The romantic element of the love story between the public and the instrument of the orchestra is from the music that we make. All the rest is just statistics, facts, and theories or concepts and analytics, which show rather a depressing picture. When we are faced with music, though, we can recognize the aspect that touches our humanity deeply and that's where the love is.

EGM: And judging by the title of your latest CD, you also think that we should love Brahms.

JA: I am a romantic. Twenty years ago I set to music love poems of romantic poets in a recording, How Do I Love Thee? I am writing an opera about Adam and Eve. Everything is about love to me, the way it was for Lenny, but more on the romantic side. Tristan and Isolde is my favorite opera. With Brahms Beloved (Telarc) I wanted to say something about Brahms through the scope of his relationship with Clara. It is a bit like a romantic opera in the sense that there was a man who was in love with a woman; this love was never fulfilled so it had to exist on a different level. Unquestionably some of that feeling can be found in his music, which is why I partnered symphonies with the lieder of Clara Schumann, even though she didn't write them for Brahms. I'm a pianist as well so I could contribute not only as a conductor. And having Wolfgang Holzmair and Felcity Lott in the second CD, which will be out in June, adds a lot of credibility to the lieder. It is about love, about finding a different voice for Brahms from this perspective. I'm willing to give everything I have for every note. Working on Eugene Onegin here at the magnificent theatre of San Carlo in Naples is a good example. I'll do anything to hear that one phrase, to hear Tatiana sing that high A flat, to have that anguish in Lenski's voice, to finally hear Onegin screaming and suffering.... This is touching the top of Mount Everest; to hear all that, for me, is like touching gold.


Photos by Luciano Romano and Francesco Squeglia, courtesy Teatro San Carlo
Photo of conductor hands by D. Vass,
Ewa Gorniak Morgan can be reached at [email protected]
See also E.G.M.'s Venice (Italy) website:

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