Conductor John Axelrod was born in America, more specifically Houston, Texas, USA. But as he has lived in Europe for more than ten years, he now calls himself an “Ameropean”. Already at the age of 16 he had lessons for a few months with no one less than Leonard Bernstein. He studied piano, composition and conducting at Harvard and St. Petersburg. Today, John Axelrod plays with the best orchestras of the world. From the Los Angeles and the London Philharmonic to the Guerzenich Orchestra Cologne to the Dresden Philharmonic. After being Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra for five years, he took this position at Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire in France in 2009.
During his last stay in Berlin when he conducted the Konzerthaus Orchestra, John Axelrod gave an interview to “musik heute”. (für die deutsche Version hier klicken)
musik heute: In the past, some classical musicians looked down on film music.
John Axelrod: They still do. Because it makes more money and it’s more popular. And in many people’s eyes, popular just means it’s not serious. The John Williams program at Tanglewood of the Boston Symphony pays for the classical programs. Because with John Williams you can sell tickets for 20.000 people. If something’s popular, does it mean it’s bad or not serious? But in the classical world we tend to look at popular and successful as not being serious for some reason. I think it’s very easy for people to justify their own positions within the industry by dismissing the music of others. There’s a lot of people in the very small 2.5-percent-classical-music-marketshare, who are very happy that it stays 2.5 percent market share. Because they have their little place in that segment and they don’t want to change it. They’re the big fish in the small pond.
musik heute: That means it’s not a matter of quality?
John Axelrod: Not at all! Look, there’s some film music composed today that is much more complicated than what some classical composers are writing for the concert hall. If you listen to horror film soundtracks, they’re much more atonal and surrealistic than Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern and Alban Berg.
musik heute: So classical music led to film music?
John Axelrod: Most people know of the First and the Second School of Viennese composition. First School being the classical composition for which Vienna will always be remembered, of the Mozart-Beethoven-Schubert period. But then you have the late-romanticism, Fin-de-Siecle, and dodecaphony which became the Second School. And I think the Third School of Viennese composition is film music. Because if had we not had Korngold and Steiner and Rosza, we would not have created the Hollywood sound.
So if you want to say that without Beethoven and Schubert we would not have Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, and without Mahler/Strauss we wouldn’t have had Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, then you can say that without Strauss/Mahler and Schönberg/Webern/Berg we would not have had Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Miklós Rózsa, Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman and any of the other film composers who came out in the 30s and 40s.
musik heute: Some of these names in Hollywood were german-sounding.
John Axelrod: It was horrible for Germany and Austria to lose so many great composers because of national socialism and fascism. Many of the most talented composers died in Auschwitz or were imprisoned in Theresienstadt. And many of them emigrated like Korngold, like Schönberg and many others did. We would not have had the Hollywood sound without the political drama in Europe.
If we leave film music on the outside, if we say: “No, film music only exists in a kind of popular medium”, then we refuse to acknowledge the legacy, the collective inheritance from which we all benefit. And you could certainly not say that Korngold was any less a virtuosic or serious composer than Strauss or Alexander Zemlinsky. Perhaps if had he stayed in Vienna, he would have written more avant-garde music. But because he went to Hollywood, there was no pressure for him to catch up with the avant-gardism of the day in Europe, he was writing for Errol Flynn movies. It had to be Strauss, had to be Fanfares, it’s like Alpensinfonie at times or it’s like Don Quichotte.
Same for Steiner who was a fantastic composer, the grandfather of film music. That’s why we have, thanks to the idea of Dr. Sandra Tomek, the Steiner-Preis at the Hollywood in Vienna film music gala at the Konzerthaus. Rosza composed for Ben Hur. His Ben-Hur fanfare is like … you could hear it out of a Beethoven symphony even or Wangerian march, whatever. And they have had an influence of the composers working today.
One might argue that John Williams is not only one of the most successful composers alive today, but actually one of the most gifted in terms of orchestration and structure. Maybe he’s not avant-garde, the way that Jörg Widmann or Wolfgang Rihm or Pascal Dusapin, people like this are. And I’ve conducted all their music, too. But what I love about John Williams’ music is, it’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Effective. Effective music. Not just: “Uh, what’s he trying to say here with this music?”. It may be easy to read, but it’s effective. Effective to play, effective to hear and also effective for the image that takes place on the screen. Because we have to remember: film music is in service to the image on the screen. There’s a lot of music that was cut. Maybe that’s the reason why Bernstein only did one film score, “On the Waterfront”, because he didn’t want his music to be cut. And a lot of music is hard to find today, because the studios just threw out the scores, they no longer needed it.
musik heute: You don’t just like film music and know its origin, but perform it yourself. Isn’t that some kind of risk for a serious conductor?
John Axelrod: It was a danger that if I go from conducting Mahler and Beethoven and Schumann to conducting John Williams that everybody’s going to start to not understand what kind of conductor I am. And it happened. Believe me, in one year I did a Schumann cycle, a Beethoven cycle, a tour with Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock and film music gala in Vienna. And people in this industry scratched their heads and said: “But is he pops or is he classical? Is he Jazz or is he classical?” Again, there are some people in the industry that like to categorize and keep it in that small frame. So from their perspective: “Oh no! He’s American, number 1 that goes against him. Number 2 he conducts film music. Number 3 he does a jazz concert with Herbie Hancock and number 4 …” The truth is, like my teacher Leonard Bernstein, I’m all of the above. I’m a 360 degree artist.
musik heute: Therefore you didn’t hesitate to become music director of the Hollywood in Vienna gala in 2009, which will take place annually.
John Axelrod: The reason, why I accepted is because it was Vienna. And not only that I have a long relationship with the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna. I’m doing it, because I believe very strongly in this Third School. I feel very strongly about the influence not only this music had on Hollywood and its sound, but on american composers that followed. I feel very strongly about the influence that film music has for the development of audiences today. And I feel very strongly that some film music can stay on the same concert program as the serious repertoire. For example, I can put, as I just did in Düsseldorf, the Korngold “Sea Hawk Overture” on the same program with the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances and the Barber Violin Concerto. I can put “Lord of the Rings” by Howard Shore on the same program with Carmina Burana, makes perfect sense. Or Klaus Badelt’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” along with “La Mer” from Claude Debussy. You can create your programmatic connections as you like.
But the point is the music. Is the music good or is it not? If it’s good – play it! If it’s not – don’t play it! It’s up to you do decide if it’s good or not, it’s subjective. So, the lesson I’m trying to say to everybody is not to refuse film music as a serious endeavor. It comes from legitimate background. It has legitimate composers. Those composers had a legitimate influence on the composers who work today. They work within the technological environment that allows the distribution of this music on a much more effective level than the way music is being composed today for the most part.
Composers and artists used technology to further advance their intentions as artists at all times. Toscanini used the radio to distribute classical music to the world, nobody called him “not serious”, Bernstein used television to his “Young People’s Concerts” to educate the world of classical music. Maybe there are people who thought he wasn’t so serious, but this was a very serious endeavour that he took. And thanks to him, he gave new life to classical music performance and education. And now today we’re using the internet and YouTube and movies and everything else in order to write music and communicate and distribute it to the public.
Wieland Aschinger, John Axelrod
And last but not least if we didn’t have film music, I think there would have been a far greater loss for 20th century music. Having film music actually is a better advantage than not having it.
musik heute: Thank you very much for this interview.