He came with a recommendation of Valery Gergiev, not a bad start.Happenchance organized a first hearing at a small festival in Austria where he whipped together an assorted, musical bunch into an orchestra in a week's time, successfully accompanying the venerated Beaux Arts Trio in Beethoven's Triple Concerto.
Second hearing was in the Mariinksy Theatre, St. Petersburg, where he shared a double bill with Gergiev,conducting Sinfonietta Cracovia. Last night was the third chance to hear him, and see what he's made of.John Axelrod: Houston born, now living in Switzerland and France, is a pleasure to watch.He has an elegant gait, a strong conducting swing, sensitive sometimes fluttering hands (yes, he had a Gergiev lesson or two along the way) and a smiling face.
He is a pleasure to watch as he is having so much fun conducting! No deep, black scowl,no nose in the air snobbery, Axelrod loves this music passionately, and has a wonderful timesharing it with orchestral musicians and the public too.
Last night's concert was in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw and featured one of Holland's good orchestra's, Brabants Orchestra. Not the Royal Concertgebouw, Holland's thoroughbred race horse, but a good orchestra; it's home is the Sillicon Valley of the Netherlands, Eindhoven, where the Philips Electronics company brought high tech, sports, music (even electronic music, Varèse!) and culture generations ago. And this good orchestra played better than it can last night, like when taking on a better tennis player, your serve instantly improves. Of course, the famed hall always inspires, but Axelrod made them happy, with a healthy, solid sound, working very hard in a programme of Ljadov, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. It's a visual culture these days, most people are glued to screens. Where is the love of the live concert going to go?Seeing a bunch in black, often looking bored behind their music desks, what's the point?
Axelrod has clearly realized that when you come to a concert, you hear, and see. He hosts his orchestra, and his audience, and makes the programme a visual as well as auditory experience. His body movements are a well thought out combination of the classic conductor and the hip young VJ: his baton has natural authority but his shoulders and hips rock along to the beat.
It is contagious, this commitment and pleasure. I have rarely seen an orchestra so warmly smiling back to the man in charge, who even silently, with his telling body language, congratulated them on a well performed movement before moving on to the next. Yes, there is a bit of a swagger to his charm: he hugs, kisses hands, bolting up and down the Concertgebouw's treacherous stairs; he could easily translate to tv.
Accompanying an even younger talent, violinist Yossif Ivanov, a mere 21, in the big & beloved concerto by Sibelius, Axelrod took a great deal of liberties, pumping a fresh rhythm into this over-played classic: perhaps a tad raw as a result, it gave wonderful impulse to the soloist's unbridled, youthful energy.
'It's a new generation! I've been here so long, seen all the old ego's. This is so wonderful to work with, a normal person, a warm man!' The person speaking has indeed been there a long time, producing concerts at the Concertgebouw now for many years. And in the elegant conductor's chambers after the concert, many a maestro has had his cool down, signed the guest book, and hosted the agents, producers, soloists and fans who come to congratulate. Tonight's concert was successful, and so the conductor hosts a happy group. There is no hallowed, awesome atmosphere here in the chambers tonight, more of a festive party scene; Axelrod is personally making sure everyone is happy and entertained, even sitting down at the Steinway to give us a Broadway show tune, of course with his own words, crooning: 'I'm with youuuu, at the Concertgebouw!...'
A great deal has been written about the new breed of conductors now taking over major orchestras around the world: Jurowski, Dudamel, Petrenko, Nézet-Séguin. We have given them our hopes for a future for classical music, for new listeners, and a renewed vitality to our beloved old world.
John Axelrod, at the moment Music Director in Lucerne and guesting everywhere, is one of this breed of conductors fully equipped to give the classics a new lease on life, taking them and himself with a pinch of humor and a dash of charisma, unafraid to entertain. In this new generation, the ego's are gone and the pleasure is back.