John Axelrod

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5 Aug 2009
Lang² and Herbie Hancock Storm Bricktown: John Axelrod Holds it Down

Musical ambassadors unite & ignite. The unlikely duo of jazzmatazz maestro Herbie Hancock and ivory smasher Lang² descended on New Jersey this past weekend as they winded down their symphony extravaganza tour that's already finessed parts of Europe and the USA. The cohesive factor was the insoluble John Axelrod, who whipped the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra into a frenzy through a populist program of widely accessible music (Mozart, Ravel, Bernstein, and Gershwin) -- the kind of music that speaks directly to the people as opposed to speaking down to them.

Crossover & synthesis is nothing new to classical music -- we've already witnessed the convergence of classical + numerous musical genres (metal, rock, hip hop, opera, etc.) for ages. So it's no secret that the tour's goal was to entice new audiences and to bridge the gap between jazz and symphony fans. It's not really about blurring the lines between jazz and classical, nor it's about finding an elusive, idealized halfway point that transcends the boundaries of audiences.

But, for once, you simply choose not to cater to the snob, the lady who's there to flaunt her new jewelry or new face lift (or both), the self-appointed arbiter of taste, the great expert of all things classical who for some reason has been trying unsuccessfully to break into classical music for 40 years and carries the inevitable huge chip on his shoulder because of that. For one night, one night only, it's about fun: no elitists or classical snobs allowed...Populist? Maybe. Fun? Yes! The classical-music-is-serious-business-guy should just stay home and complain about his jetlag, cold meatloaf, traffic, and property taxes. For just one night.


The event wasn't necessarily about the purity of the music, although when the two soloists cranked out the hits (with the help of Axelrod's quicksilver baton), the musical spirit was full of bright colors, inventive improvisations, and rousing tempi.

Vaughan Williams Concerto for Two Pianos in C Major came out as complex and moody, but unsentimental; Mozart's overture to Le Nozze dazzled, airborne and buoyant with Axelrod's skilled interpretation of the Austrian composer (Opera Chic so loved W. Axl Rod's Don Giovanni in Lucerne earlier this year); Ravel's Ma Mere L'Oye was modified for the two soloists, yet retained a delicate and uncomplicated sensibility; Bernstein's Mambo swung in the way that only Axelrod's proximity to Lenny could bring, and called for a rousing war cry of audience participation (Axelrod, a former student of Lenny's, who shaped a wonderful Candide at la Scala under OC's watchful eyes, is quite clearly one of the leading Bernstein conductors of our time); and (an overtly modified) Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue brought the house down with its ambitious scope and scintillating rhythm.

The main works were further segmented with solos and improvisational freestyles thrown in by Lang² and Hancock. The easily-digestible concept sat well with the audience, a sold-out crowd that drew the most diverse gathering OC has ever seen Stateside or in Europe under a concert hall roof.

The show's success was highly dependent on the chemistry between the three leads (Lang², Hancock & Axelrod), all of whom gelled like the oldest of friends. You'd think that all those years living in Switzerland as MD of Luzerner Theater and Chief Conductor of the Luzerner Sinfonie would have made Axelrod neutral between the two opposing old enough to be the other's father, but that wasn't the case. Axelrod was the catalyst between the pantomiming performers, at times mediating the antics of the two pianists with good natured humor.

A solo encore reiterated that Lang² was still new at jazz improvisations, Hancock joining the young pianist in a joint freestyle. The two pulled in recognizable bits of Joplin, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel and Beethoven between their four fussing hands.

Between the trifecta of awesomeness, we've got a tour concept that literally writes itself into an "a ______, a ______, and a ______ walk into a bar" joke, of which two performers have lol-inducing abbreviations in their surnames. I mean, seriously -- how often does that really happen? It's like Halley's Comet. OC just hopes she doesn't have to wait another 75 years for another tour.

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