After Mariusz Smolij, he is the second conductor from Houston to establish close contacts with Poland. John Neal Axelrod, a student of Leonard Bernstein and Christoph Eschenbach, as well as founder of the ensemble Orchestra X, initially came to Poland on the invitation of Krakow's Beethoven Festival (directing a concert in which Eschenbach was the soloist), and became the first guest conductor of the young orchestra "Sinfonietta Cracovia" (whose artistic director is concertmaster Robert Kabara). On November 8th, he appeared at the National Philharmonic, on the occasion of having assumed the principal conductor's chair with the Sinfonietta. Thus, it was possible to compare the craft of the two visitors from that Texan metropolis. I don't believe it's necessary that I mention whom the comparison favors.
Axelrod is a distinctive conductor, compelling and unconventional. What's immediately evident is that making music is something that enthralls and delights him greatly. Smiling, he almost dances on the podium, and makes excellent contact with the audience. His interpretations, though at times polemical, are meticulously thought through.
He emphasized the pastiche character of Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony with a somewhat weightier sound. The first movement was played at more of an allegretto than allegro. After the lyrical-idyllic second movement, the gavotte was an abundant confluence of accelerandos, ritardandos, bows, and winks of the eye (with a picturesque "flourish" by the conductor at the end). The finale proved to be a spirited manifestation of the joy of life.
From the dawn of neoclassicism, we jumped to a late study of the style. A popular piece in the US, Bernstein's Serenade for violin, string orchestra, harp and percussion was conducted by Axelrod with a piety befitting of a venerable teacher; soloist Robert Kabara displayed a beautiful tone, as well as subtlety of interpretation.
After the impressions of the first part of the concert, it was no surprise when Beethoven's Pastoral proved as if conceived with Axelrod's conducting temperament in mind: everything seemed "alive" - the brook, the birds, the lumbering dance of the peasants, the thunderclaps, and sunshine for a happy end.
Following the end of the concert, the conductor interrupted the applause to thank not only the musicians of the ensemble, but also El¿bieta and Krzysztof Penderecki, who were present in the hall. A representative of the sponsor, i.e. the Mont Blanc company, took advantage of the occasion to present a gift - a fountain pen, naturally - to the conductor, who promptly replaced his baton with it to conduct the encore: the final Saltarello from Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony. Though the rendition wasn't quite as brisk and flawless as that of "Sinfonia Varsovia", it truly didn't want for much.