John Axelrod

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16 Jan 2012
Interview with John Axelrod
Get Ready To Rock

Interview with JOHN AXELROD

by Jason on Fri 13 Jan 2012 22:12 GMT  |  Permanent Link

Classical rock is a nascent musical genre pioneered by one of the most adventurous and eclectic contemporary conductors John Axelrod.

But what is classical rock? Tap in the genre into Google and very little pops up, but once you add John Axelrods’s name the links come thick and fast.

Classical rock is a genre in the making, the conjoining of the twin towers of classical music and classic rock in the same sonic template, all brought to life by the full might of an orchestra.

And John Axelrod is a conductor with a colourful past - one part former A & R man in the rock business, one part wine expert and for the most part a celebrated conductor, schooled by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and a conductor who has presided over 130 orchestras. He’s also got an exciting future.  For Axelrod is a man on an innovative musical mission with enough streetwise cred to know his way round A-Z of classic rock. As he says himself, he’s ‘probably the only conductor working in the world today who was a director of rock 'n' roll for BMG and the head of a wine firm’.

Put simply, if there’s a musical bridge to be forged between the influence of classical music on classic rock, then surely the irrepressible John Axelrod is that person to lead the way, being probably the only classic music conductor with strap lines like ‘Beethoven, Beer and Barbecue’.


Pete Feenstra talks to John Axelrod and starts with asking for a simple definition of Classical Rock?

Classical rock is the best hits of classical music combined with the best hits of classic rock. It’s the idea that classical music can help itself and build audiences by introducing in a new soundscape some of its best hits in parallel with some of the best hits of classic rock. And rock can help itself by returning to its roots.

Great thanks. I haven’t seen the running order of the album yet, but do you juxtapose Rock with Classical pieces?

Exactly right. Classical rock is a unique project that’s never been done before. For example, we go from the classical repertoire of Wagner’s ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ straight into Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ with no space in between the two. Not only that, we play the original arrangement of ‘Iron Man’ with all the heaviness of the original, exactly as it was. Then there’s examples like Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ which segues into Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’, which follows the sunrise from Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathrustra’ etc.

In previous recordings of projects like this, the music has sounded like elevevator or background music, so it’s very important that these arrangements can demonstrate the same heaviness and the ‘in your face’ quality of classic rock. The aim is to show that classical music can relate to classic rock on the same sonic level, so there’s no sonic difference when they are joined together.

2 What makes you pair two pieces of music from different musical genres together?

You have to analyse the music and maybe ask yourself some questions like; ‘if Wagner had been around now would he have been the heavy Metal of his day?’ and I think the answer is yes. Similarly if Queen had been around years ago would they have composed an oratorio, again I would say yes, probably. There’s so much common ground. The integrity of classical music is presented at the highest level of performance. The orchestral arrangements of classic rock hits are unique and musical.  There’s as much virtuosity in the performance of say Metallica and Radiohead as there is in a piece of classical music. And really the difference between the good and bad in either genre is to be found in its virtuosity.

You successfully raised your funding for the project by Dec 2011. Was that to try and take the project on the road?

What we are doing is exploring a really independent way of doing things including funding the project. Some people are very surprised when they hear the music. This isn’t anything like, say the LPO plays The Beatles or a disco version of Beethoven’s 5th. We’ve already released the album on Nov 24 on the internet and the money we generate is used to build awareness of the project from the ground up.

Frank Zappa spent a lot of his career earning funds with his rock stuff to subsidise his classical work, but this is slightly different isn’t it?

Yes it is, we are concentrating on the common ground between musical genres and the fact that one came out of the other. The main difference is that we’re updating everything in a contemporary sonic format.

Have you found any resistance in the Classical community to your cross genre approach?

There’s been some yes but I would have expected that. In fact I originally thought there would be a greater uptake in the rock community. And that has proved to be the case. We put an advert on both Classic Rock magazine and The Gramophone and though we had a good response from both, the rock side of things was bigger. But then again when you think about it the classical field accounts for only something like 2% of the market whereas rock is up to 50%.

You also have a mission statement for Classical Rock which is that the idea is to develop audiences for the orchestra?

Well the role of the orchestra is an essential one in this project because classic rock is influenced by classical music in the first place. So the whole thing is really a tip of the hat to those connections. When you think about it, there are lots of links between the two genres, like Led Zeppelin, Queen and The Who with opera. The Beatles and Genesis were influenced by classical music, Yes was very orchestral and they composed 20 minute suites while ELP actually played classical music. And it’s the same with most classic rock up to and including Radiohead. There’s a real influence from classical music through to classic rock and I’m exploring the common bond between both worlds.

And you think this is especially so in the history of the recording industry?

Very much so; when you look at the history of recorded music, you look at Toscanini’s pioneering orchestral efforts, Leibowitz’s soundcapes, von Karajan’s wall of sound for example, and then the next step was simply to compress the sound to record it

We used to have FFRR (full frequency range recording) as an industry standard in the 40’s and  50’s and then later there FFSS (full frequency stereo sound)  which pushed things more towards a "live sound", and one that is heard in the concert hall, with less isolation and more ambience. By the time we got stereo in living rooms there was an emphasis on depth of sound and reverberation and there was experimenting going on in the studio, be it the likes of Steely Dan in rock or Glen Gould in classical and a push towards hearing more intensive audio detail. Rock was doing well at this point especially in concert halls etc, but while classical music was till being listened to in the new outlets and formats the concerts weren’t doing well. What I’m doing is juxtaposing classic music and rock to create a new genre and a new sonic paradigm based around original arrangements

It was rock & roll that originally compressed the sound with an ‘in your face’ quality whereas.  The isolation of instruments and vocals with inspired ensemble playing resulted in a new paradigm of sound for popular music. Classic music was essentially based on the distance between the listener and the performer, which reflected the reverbation and space in the concert hall. So there was a real distance between the crowd and orchestra, which in turn didn’t leave much room for the kind of interaction between performers and crowds at a rock show. I don’t believe classical music audiences should necessarily sit still during a performance.

So this would seem to be part of your definition of the orchestra as a rock band?

Yes very much so. The power of an orchestra helps you to hear what was actually composed and the aim of my classical rock project is to recreate that experience through 21st century sonic exposure, rather than in a 20th century recording paradigm with the limitations of audio and speaker quality which led to compression, especially in rock. We’re looking towards a fresh sonic language to accommodate both genres of music.

Do you have to come to Europe in particular to fully realise the role of an orchestra?

That’s an interesting question. I guess the answer is that I went for the best opportunity I could find in the evolution of this thing. I was working as a conductor in Europe so I already had a start. And the idea of the Maestro X moniker was a kind of rock and roll thing.

You established the experimental Orchestra X in 1997. Was that the start of your interest in things beyond the normal Classical confines?

I was back in Houston Texas then and the project became hugely successful, it involved younger people and had the idea that of utilising orchestra as a rock band so it led on to new areas.  It was also partly the idea of looking for a new audience for an orchestra.

You’ve also been described as a champion of modern music, but isn’t combining both the best bits of Classical and Classic rock merely regurgitating old stuff for an older audience?

Well there’s an obvious core audience of baby boomers for whom this music will be a step back to a great time of their lives, maybe nostalgic even. But given the restricted outlets for music back then, that same audience was probably just as exposed to some classical music as it was to rock music. Nowadays an audience has millions of potential outlets from 500 MTC channels to Youtube, the internet etc. And while we can’t expect that core audience to flock to the concert hall in the way they did, in the past (much like the way church congregations have diminished), there is a big potential for an increased exposure of the common denominator between classic and rock music. So our research has told us that inevitably the people who have been downloading the music are younger and this is in parallel with industry trends. But while that is the case, we’ve also found that the fastest growing segment of the internet usage is between 45 and upwards and given that this age group also has disposable income to spare we hope they will become part of our musical crossover.


Do you think your background on both the business side of music as well as being involved in both Classical and Rock side gives you a unique input into a project like this?

Absolutely. I’m the only former A& R person involved in anything like this. In fact I’m the only person crazy enough to do something like this (laughs). I was talking to a respected classical critic in London recently, who said to me, Bravo for doing this, but it’s not for me. And I can understand why they might feel that way. But this whole project is a unique expression of who I am and it’s simply a case of being true to myself. It’s the exact opposite of the usual thing of the industry telling you what to do. After all it’s only when people take a chance that music has moved forward. But for me it isn't so much taking a risk as having fun.

What did your role as an A&R man teach you about the music business?

It’s the same thing about believing in your gut instincts. I recorded Jellyfish, signed up Mark Cohn, Bruce Hornsby, Tori Amos and The Smashing Pumpkins. I worked with Atlantic records in ‘88/’89 and was A&R for RCA/BMG between '90 and '92. And when I was in the studio with a band or whatever, I'd always fall back on searching for the authenticity and virtuosity of the artist. There was always pressure from the label and recording industry in general to imitate and come up with (in those days) the next Guns & Roses. And of course money is important; it’s a business after all. But you have to be your own person and do what you believe in.

Was it struggle to sign The Smashing Pumpkins?

So what happened back then was I wanted to sign the Smashing Pumpkins because I loved them and more importantly the co-president of the label liked them too and he thought they were the future. But the bottom line was that the company wasn’t patient enough and he got fired.  So now we had a new president who came from the country division of the company, and back in the 90’s country was big. So we had an A&R meeting and he said; ‘The Smashing Pumpkins, that’s the worst name I ever heard for a band’. Anyway Joe Shanahan from Metro Chicago sent me a single of the band and it was the first time I heard Billy Corgan play. This had the same effect as when I first heard Wagner's 'Tristan & Isolde'. He was taking Hendrix to another level. I said to Billy what’s it like to play guitar like that and he said, “It’s like a bullet to the brain”. I knew right then he was the real deal.  So I told the label I believe this band will be successful by building up a fan base from the ground up, but they still wanted to drop them.

But my A&R experience just told me to be true to yourself. I understood all the aspects of performance and recording techniques. And it’s that same connection between the performance aspects of Classical Music with the engagement of rock that I wanted to connect with.

You’ve also performed Leonard Bernstein’s music, a composer who attempted to develop New American Classical Music by incorporating diversity of (American) life into his music. Do you attempt to do the same with your projects?

Yes I do. Leonard Bernstein was my teacher and was the greatest example of someone who would bring different musical words together.  He was a very flexible person who understood the need to communicate and educate. After all he was able to bring in different music into his repertoire from jazz to film music.

I still try to incorporating different music into the repertoire, and remember that classic rock is a basically British invention - I mean bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin and Sabbath etc -  so that’s quite a departure to start with.

Did you find any resistance to your adventurous programming at the Lucerne festival?

Well I was Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra from 2004 – 2009 so I was in a position to do something.

And you also have to realise that our success at the normally very conservative Lucerne Festival was groundbreaking. They essentially needed a new audience so we created classical rock and to this day it's still the most successfully attended concert in the history of the Lucerne Festival.

You’ve already invited people to give you suggestions for Volume 2 of the Classical Rock album. How did you go about this yourself at the outset and have you had any interesting feedback so far?

The key for me is the artist approach to the whole thing. There’s obviously so much to choose from in both the classical and rock fields. But it seems to me the key is to find classical hits that have a programmatic connectivity to classic rock hits. So you can pair Dukas’s ‘The Sorcerer's Apprentice’ with The Who's 'Pinball Wizzard' for example, or Rhimsky Korsakov’s 'Sherezade’ with Zeppelin’s 'Kashmir' and ‘Sabbath’s’ Iron Man’ with Wagner’s ‘Ride of The Valkyries’. But since we’ve asked for suggestions for 'Classical Rock Volume2', we’ve already had some great ideas, for example Stravinski’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ paired with Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild’, and Hendrix’s 'Purple Haze' with a section of Berlioz’s 'Fantasia’.

Classical Rock website

Interview © January 2012 Pete Feenstra

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