John Axelrod, a self-described "Ameripean," is aTexas native who has performed with leading orchestras and performers throughout Europe and the U.S. He is also a protégé of the legendary Leonard Bernstein.
Last fall, Axelrod became Music Director of France's Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire. Prior to that, he presided over the Luzerner Sinfonie Orchester and Theater. He is also Music Director of the "Hollywood In Vienna" gala concert series with the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna and Principal Guest Conductor of Sinfonietta Cracovia.
NPR caught up with Axelrod last week in Berlin before his appearance at the Konzerthaus in a program featuring a violin concerto written by Pianist-in- Residence Fazil Say with Patricia Kopantchiskaja as soloist.
Let's talk about your program at the Konzerthaus. How does Say's violin concerto fit together with the chosen repertoire by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven?
I wanted to show the connection between Occident and Orient. Certainly in Haydn's time the injection of a Turkish march and fanfare of trumpets into his "Militaire Symphony" must have given people an electric shock, but today it's possible for performers from a wide range of backgrounds to bring their different cultural perspectives to the stage. I find it very valuable that, as in this case, an American conductor, a Turkish pianist and a Moldovan violinist can perform together. Fazil and I have done quite a lot together; in fact it was with my orchestra in Luzern that I commissioned his violin concerto which we then recorded with Patricia in 2007. And it's gone on to have performances around the world. I'm happy to come to Berlin any time, but to do this program in the city that probably has the largest Turkish population outside Istanbul together with my friends is fantastic because it reinforces my own personal values of tolerance and acceptance. Whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, we can all relate to the essence of what music communicates.
So you believe music allows people to transcend cultural boundaries?
Yes, I think the arts can hold up a kind of mirror showing what truly resonates inside all human beings. I tend to be neutral when it comes to politics, but if music can allow people to see more clearly on certain issues and contribute to a dialogue of reconciliation and acceptance, then that's a good thing, whether it's through Beethoven's settings of Schiller's in the Ninth Symphony or Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony No. 3. I agree with Daniel Barenboim when he says that while politics are about compromise, music should not be in terms of our seriousness and integrity. With the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire we do outreach within various communities. France has the largest Jewish population in Europe but also the largest Muslim population. Just last week we had the music director of the orchestra of Cairo and Qatar conducting two Israeli clarinetists in works by Gershwin, Waxman, and Mussorgsky.
Did you also inherit some of these values from Leonard Bernstein?
Yes, certainly his idea of "the love you make, the love you take" and that communication is key, whether bringing across the intentions of a composer or the role music can play in a community. I think music today has a humanitarian as well as an artistic purpose. By defining it this way, music is justified to contribute to a larger dialogue about society. In that sense we have a role to play. We're not musicians in an ivory tower cut off from the rest of the world. We have to earn our place in society. And I think the best way to do that is to hold up that mirror and say: don't forget, the truth is in our hearts and our souls.
Will it be particularly meaningful to conduct Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony No.3 at the Kennedy Center this June?
This is my only U.S. engagement this season. To perform this piece with the National Symphony in Washington right now is rather prophetic. We premiered the symphony with a new text by Sam Pisar, an Auschwitz survivor, in 2003 with the Chicago Symphony, and now here we are approaching what would have been Bernstein's 95th birthday. Not only did Bernstein inaugurate the Kennedy Center and dedicate Kaddish to the memory of JFK, but Pisar was an advisor to Kennedy Staff.
The theme of the program is about struggle. While Bernstein's music evokes a certain fight within in his soul about the failure of humanity during World War Two, Pisar's texts add another level of believability. As the only survivor from his village, Pisar expresses how he battled not only against Hitler and Stalin, but Godfor most of his life. Imagine losing your entire family, all your schoolmates— everyone you knew—and having to live with that relationship to God. We will also perform Bernstein's "On the Waterfront" soundtrack, the only film score Lenny ever wrote.
What do you think are ways of attracting new audiences to classical music, especially in the U.S. where there is perhaps more of a stigma attached to the art form than in Europe?
Well, the good news is that everyone is trying. But we have to redefine the paradigm of classical music performance. We'd be fooling ourselves if we thought a concert was going to stay the same through the 21st century. My generation grew up singing, dancing and clapping, not just sitting down passively. One has to realize that the etiquette in concert halls today is only about 100 years old and comes from a time when the world was filled with dictators. We forget that in Beethoven's time, he premiered the second movement of the Seventh Symphony twice before he could get to the third movement because the audience went crazy! So I think if the public, which has the power in this equation, remains open to the evolution of orchestral performance, then we will remain relevant to the community that we serve.
With the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire, I recently conducted a performance, which I will do in Berlin next year, of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" and Duke Ellington's Big Band version of the same work. It was a student concert for ages 13 to 20. When I asked if they wanted an encore, 2,000 kids were yelling "valse!" And then I spontaneously asked if someone would dance the waltz with me. A 16 year-old girl said "I will!" and ran to the podium. We didn't miss a beat.