He is one of the most exciting personalities among today’s conductors: John Axelrod, born in Houston, Texas in 1966, is not to be pigeonholed into any of the usual categories. Neither an egomaniacal star of the conductor’s podium nor modernist crossover advocate, he has found his very own style between musical worlds.
The man has a vision, namely to make music that spans generations, that touches both 16-year-old adolescents and 80-year-olds who claim to have already seen, heard and lived through everything. When John Axelrod, Chief Conductor of the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire, takes the podium, it is not uncommon to hear performances of a Beethoven symphony and a commissioned piece by electro musician and DJ Gabriel Prokoﬁev all in one evening. “If we don’t seek to understand the living environments and realities of today and attempt to make sense of them, there is basically no future for classical music,”
Axelrod says, getting straight to the point. “My teacher Leonard Bernstein taught me that we shouldn’t be scared of contact with so-called ‘light music’, there is only good and bad music, just do it!”
It was also Bernstein who encouraged Axelrod – after a detour via music management and a role as director of Mondawi Food & Wine Center (he is still passionate about good food and wine) – to pursue a career in music. Anyone who experiences John Axelrod live in concert or giving an explanation of music today will sense a great deal of Bernstein’s charismatic nature, his curiosity, openness and unbridled joy in music.
Axelrod likes to speak of an almost spiritual occurrence that brought him back to music for good. One evening, when he was driving through Napa Valley on his way home from a ﬁne dinner accompanied by inspiring conversation, he suddenly started to hear the overture of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde(his absolute favorite) in his head with an intensity the likes of which he had never experienced before. Unable to drive any further, Axelrod stopped, got out of the car and took in the perfect tranquility of Napa Valley. It was in this instant that he was overcome by the overpowering realization that he simply had to return to music. When he got back into the car and turned on the radio to hear – as if by a miracle – the overture of Tristan & Isolde, the decision had been made. He handed in his notice the very next day and once again focused his full attention on music.
His encounter with conductor Christoph Eschenbach, who was chief conductor in Axelrod’s native city of Houston and whom he would later assist with Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival and with Mahler’s Symphony No.8 at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, was instrumental in his artistic breakthrough in Europe. In Houston, John Axelrod had founded Orchestra X, an orchestra for Generation X consisting mainly of music students with which he conducted successful experiments going above and beyond the borders of classical music. Today, these experiences play a decisive role in his artistic work with leading European orchestras; ﬁrst of all as chief conductor of the traditional orchestras of Krakow and Lucerne, then later in the same function at the Orchestre des Pays de la Loire and Orchestra Giuseppe Verdi in Milan, made up of many young, talented musicians. Thus he launched events such as “Beethoven, Beer and Barbecue”, where an evening of Beethoven symphonies is rounded of with a BBQ and a few beers. Or Amadeus – a musical play about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Each event is based on a speciﬁc theme and follows a particular dramatic plot.
According to Axelrod, “it is crucial that we always play as though it were a matter of life and death; only then do we keep our audience and also gain new followers.”The musical integrity of the composition remains untouched here. “For me the integrity and quality of the composition takes center stage,” says Axelrod, “but we have to adapt the presentation framework to the present day. It is always a matter of listening, interacting and understanding. The audience wants to be taken seriously, on a musical journey in a contemporary way.” Axelrod would like to be seen as a musical creator, not just a curator. “It is up to us to design and present, not to administrate,” he says, quite in the tradition of Bernstein.
When asked about his musical roots, Axelrod likes to describe himself as an “Ameropean”, in limbo between two worlds, who seeks to combine the American laidback nature and willingness to experiment with European tradition and seriousness. And so, his two mentors Leonard Bernstein and Christoph Eschenbach may well represent each of these different worlds. They are both to be found within John Axelrod – an exciting symbiosis.
Daniel von Bernstorff
Details of John Axelrod’s next concert can be found at