The American turns the “Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire“ into France’s most successful orchestra
John Axelrod is a happy conductor. He is happy with his orchestra, the „Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire“, he is happy with the success he is obtaining in the west of France. Axelrod is also a passionate conductor. He speaks with passion, he conducts with passion and with a passion he gets involved for his orchestra and for the region. „I am a man in the city, I belong to the community“, is one of his mottos. Remy Franck has visited him in Nantes.
The Interview was scheduled for half past five, before the evening concert in which Axelrod, among others, will be conducting the Fourth Symphony by Johannes Brahms. But the rehearsal took longer than expected. Axelrod injected his orchestra one more time with his own passion. And everyone joined in, all were sitting on the edge of their seats. And then he had to talk to a group of residents from Nantes who had attended the rehearsal. Then, finally, it was time, and the interview could begin. A conversation with two journalists, one German and one from Luxembourg. Axelrod initially wanted to speak in English, he began moving more and more into German and switching then always more frequently into French. In the end the conversation lasted until shortly before the concert. John hates the wait before a performance and gladly shortens that time, whenever possible. He, an American in the west of France. An American?
I was born an American and today I consider myself an „Ameropean“. I haven’t only conducted European musical repertoire, but have actually integrated European culture within myself. I live in Europe. I have a German wife, we have a French nanny ... My teacher Ilya Musin taught me the integrity needed to deal with European music. I was also an assistant to Christoph Eschenbach and have learned a lot from him. Over the past ten years I've conducted 120 Orchestras, the vast majority of which in Europe.
So not a plain American anymore. How does an Ameropean see the music scene in his new home country?
In France, for each composer there are twenty philosophers, writers and painters. In Germany for each philosopher, writer and painter there are twenty composers. The cultures of these two countries are very different. Dieudonné de Vabres, the former French minister of culture, once told me that France had no musical culture. This is outrageous: Without Lully we wouldn’t have any conductors. Without Rameau we wouldn’t have fantasy in Baroque, without Ravel and Debussy there wouldn’t be Impressionism, contemporary music would be very different without Messiaen. French culture may have fewer musicians representing the different genres, but France is in the first position when it comes to the recognition of music, or to musical education. This is much better here than in Germany. We have a lot of success here. In France we have a chance..... (continues talking in French):
The „Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire“ has the largest number of subscribers of all French orchestras: more than 10,000 subscribers in 3 towns in Nantes, Angers and Le Mans. Each season, we reach 200,000 people. In the west of France there is a great hunger for culture. This also explains the success of the Folles Journées de Nantes. I am responsible for programming the ONPL. So in that I can realize my vision, I can dare new combinations. I can conceive theme nights. For „Amadeus“ we presented excerpts from the play by Peter Shaffer, with three actors. We played symphonic and concert music, opera overtures and excerpts from the Requiem ... For the „ Le Nouveau Monde“ evening we performed works by Kennis, Prokofiev and, of course, the Symphonie du Nouveau Monde. In the program „Tchaikovsky“ I combine the Nutcracker with Big Band music: Harlem Nutcracker. We commissioned a new work to Serge Prokofievs’ grand-son, Gabriel Prokofiev. It will consist of variations on the theme from Beethovens’ Ode to Joy for symphonic orchestra and chamber music, family concerts...
Good, many orchestras do that, but Axelrod is clearly successful. What are your recipes?
There are three recipes to attract audiences: the first is the commitment of the musicians. The orchestra musician must play as if it were a matter of life and death. If making music becomes a „job“ to earn a living, it’s the end, we become a museum. The second aspect is the presentation. Beethoven is not a problem for young people. It is the presentation that counts. The public today has evolved, it has a different lifestyle, different expectations, while the presentation of the music has not changed. It is therefore necessary that an orchestra understands the needs of the public. We need to change the presentation without touching the music itself. I will therefore attract and educate the audience with the greatest commitment of the orchestra. Bernstein was also one of my teachers and in this respect I have learned a lot from him. We make a „Spectacle“, we create new relationships between the works, and suddenly the audience hears individual works in a different light. I talk a lot with the audience during the concert and also during rehearsals that are open to the public.
We are not musicians in an ivory tower. My baker comes to our concerts, so does the lady from the dry-cleaner where I bring my clothes. I myself have a very close relationship with the audience. But there is a third factor: the family. Our family concerts are of the utmost importance. We collaborate with someone whom I consider to be the greatest presenter of music since Bernstein: Jean-François Zygel. He has totally changed the situation in France. And this is a great help to classical music. For us he will perform a concert with a „Concerto for family and Orchestra“. Imagine the impact. This is a competition. The entire region will participate! The family is our most important partner.
But this family, doesn’t it have other priorities than music?
Clearly we have much competition. Today there are hundreds of TV channels, all sorts of radio programs, audio recordings of all kinds, videos, newspapers and magazines galore. Life is, how does one say it... fragmented (in engl.)*. We are also working always more. We believed that the computer would facilitate our work, but actually it only gives us more work to do. We must therefore deal with all the offers that are being presented today.We can not confront them and claim to be an institution of the 19th century. We must adapt. Our orchestra is not an elite orchestra, we are not exclusive but inclusive. We are creative, we are open for direct contact with the public. And I also dialogue with the orchestra. There must be harmony between all parts, between musicians, the conductor and the audience. And we must also take in consideration that the audience is smart. It recognizes if you are there to serve it or to use it. I am against a lower quality level. I'm against populism, against the cross-over. I think the success of classical music today is too often linked to beauty and the sexy appearance of the soloists. It is too often the result of populism. My idea is to keep full integrity in terms of repertoire and at the same time create an atmosphere and programming that attracts the audience. The public wants to learn, he wants to know, he wants to understand the background. I allow this by inviting him to rehearsals, by talking to him.
John Axelrod, a conductor-psychologist?
Yes! A conductor must not only be a musician, he also has to be a psychologist and anthropologist. He must have the mentality to understand and act accordingly.
Facing the public and dealing with orchestras. (continues in engl.)* Okay, sometimes its like fitting the square peg in the round hole. If you have a square peg and a square hole, it’s just fine. Do so. If you have a round peg, use a round hole. If you try to fit a square peg in the round hole, you won’t have success. In Luxembourg, I had difficulties communicating with the orchestra. Today I think I know the answer. In Germany, every orchestra is looking for quick solutions and accepts them immediately. In France, I have to talk very much and explain a lot ... the conductor needs to know these differences, and he must use them. But my Brahms sounds different in Germany than in France. A conductor does not play music, he has to play people.
Italic is used for when J.A. speaks French, while the regular font is for German.