John Axelrod






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19 Oct 2001
Beethoven, Brilliance and Bonhomie - OrchestraX: Beer, Bratwurst and Beethoven


You can always rely on OrchestraX for a fun, interesting twist to concert-going. At the Garden in the Heights´ Okotberfest-transformed Biergarten, a live German band was belting out Schlagers, while guests lined up for beer and sausage before making their way into the all-Beethoven performance.

The usual informal OrchestraX experience began with Artistic Director John Axelrod greeting each person as they streamed into the hall with Bratwurst-on-a-stick and mugs of beer. The Saengerbund Hall - hardly a typical concert hall - is quaint and cozy, replete with a bar, Bavarian flag and deer antlers on every wall. Appropriately, it is perhaps reminiscent of the type of hall in which Beethoven´s music first debuted.

With the Overture to Creatures of Prometheus, one of Beethoven's not-so-well-known concert starters, the space revealed its raw, somewhat lifeless acoustic. Because of the limited space, the orchestra sat abruptly divided: the winds were about four feet above the strings on a stage, with brass and then timpani behind them. Aside from some preliminary balance issues due to this great divide, the winds and strings found their groove by the end of the overture. OrchestraX´s ability to rise above the setting´s acoustical limitations became apparent as they filled the hall with the rich, lyrical melodies of the Prometheus Overture, and in fact the orchestra's size (45 players) and set-up combined with the acoustics to produce a sound similar to Beethoven played on period instruments: crisp, dry and timbrally distinct.

Axelrod gave a thorough but casual introduction to the three soloists for the Beethoven Triple Concerto, all young men with diverse musical backgrounds. Violinist Jonathan Godfrey, cellist Derek Menchan, and pianist Alpin Hong played harmoniously together as a trio with the orchestra. Fun to listen to and to watch, the soloists spun melodic motives off one another, often as much tongue-in-cheek as virtuosic. In fact, the visual aspect of the concert experience (in addition to the Gen-X-approved setting) seems as important to OrchestraX as the music itself. Visibly, the musicians enjoyed the music together. Keeping impeccable tempos and rhythms, the soloists played with a confident enthusiasm, despite intonation lapses in the cello line and an overall fight to project through the hall. The orchestra, as the "fourth soloist", played with vigor, ease and confidence.

During a relaxed intermission, Hong, recent winner of the 2001 Concert Artists Guild Competition, suddenly pulled a Beethoven-esque move: long hair flying he pounded the piano in a solo à la "Great Balls of Fire", to the delight of the audience. Members of the orchestra casually chatted with people from the audience over coffee and cakes.

The advantage of playing Beethoven´s 5th Symphony in such an intimate hall is that it becomes close enough to touch. Everything about this performance was strong and confident: the brass clean and stately; the winds and strings holding a delicate balance between directness and vulnerability; the lower strings humming lyrically, full of lush, clear color. Especially for this well-known opus, the dynamic range was altogether brilliant, and Axelrod moved the band through the familiar cadences with verve and imagination.

Congratulations to Axelrod and OrchestraX, for combining such an upbeat setting with such a dynamic, professional performance.


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