John Axelrod

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21 Jan 2009
New Musical Goldmine for Turkey: Charismatic Conductor John Axelrod, Teamed with Fazıl Say

Though the evening was ostensibly a cause célèbre for the Turkish premiere of Fazıl Say's "Harem'de 1001 Gece", the surprise star that emerged from the concert, which featured Say as piano soloist and composer and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya, was conductor John Axelrod. Even turning pages for Say at the keyboard (in his Violin and Piano Sonata), Axelrod's charisma was a palpable ingredient in the musical act. And the brilliant musical team that they were, an American, a Turk, and a Moldovan, generated an electrical energy that stayed in the room long after the show was over.

Beginning with the overture to Mozart's opera "Saray'dan Kız Kaçırma", Axelrod turned on the voltage. One couldn't help but notice his scintillating podium presence even more than music's breakneck speed at which he challenged the orchestra to meet. And it wasn't speed for speed's sake, it was an infectious energy that kept everyone aiming for the moon.

Fazıl Say performed the Mozart Piyano Konçertosu No. 21, Do majör, with stunning technical virtuosity and control, always clean and clear, and with his own humorous injections in the cadenzas, which didn't stray too far from the tonal road. (His own compositions would later give us considerable tonal wanderings.) But it must be said, despite the artist's formidable gifts as an interpreter and player, his stage manner is becoming more and more bizarre: as he plays, his body often leans over in an extreme sideways position - as if he's either doing yoga or is trying to communicate with the dead composer under the floor. While one can appreciate Say's complete lack of self-consciousness and loose-limbed quality as a performer, these puzzling and irrelevant affectations at the keyboard don't seem to have any connection to the music itself.

The centerpiece of the evening, Say's "Harem'de 1001 Gece", which has already enjoyed premieres in Japan and Europe, received its first hearing in the homeland to which it is dedicated. A highly descriptive and programmatic tone poem, it evoked exotic evenings at the Harem (probably Topkapi Saray), complete with bird sounds, folk drums, confusion and chaos in the labyrinth, and the famous tune "Üsküdar'a giderken", all of which employed a gorgeous orchestration that tipped its hat to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sheherazade" and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring". Axelrod's podium control perfectly piloted the percussive engine and enormous sonic scope the composer gave him to master.

At the center of the centerpiece was the extraordinary Patricia Kopatchinskaya, a violinist whose uniqueness lies not only in her affinity for improvisatory interpretations, but her fondness for appearing barefoot on the concert stage in the middle of winter. Notwithstanding also her bright red gown with an asymmetrical zipper up the front, she belied her youthful appearance with a musical maturity and unexpected zest of delivery that perfectly matched Say's clowning and Axelrod's expansive energy. She employed sweet tone and fabulous lyricism in addition to all kinds of experimental sounds (like knocking on the instrument), practically dancing her way through her masterful rendition of the rhythmically challenging score.

Finally, in an unusual programming decision for an orchestra concert, the trio of Kopatchinskaya, Say, and Axelrod as page-turner, came out to perform Say's "Sonata for Violin and Piano", Opus 7, written in 1997. The five movement sonata is a sublime and fascinating work, using pointillism, whole-tone scales, surrealism, Turkish folk references, and jazz to seduce the ear. It's a hugely expressive, impassioned and athletic duet that covered a wide musical territory.

The audience members were charmed out of their seats to demand more from this sparkling trio, and they proceeded to give more: humorous improvisations that ended with a boogie-woogie version of Beethoven's "Für Elise". As if it couldn't get any more fun, the trio allowed their respective young daughters to take a bow with their parents - undoubtedly a show-biz goldmine in Turkey. But the packed house that night, having clearly walked in as Fazıl Say fans, walked out John Axelrod fans too. Already a wildly impressive up-and-coming figure in European musical circles (chiefly Lucerne, Switzerland where he is resident conductor), Axelrod I'm sure will, to Turkey's good fortune, be back.

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