John Axelrod

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26 Dec 2013
The Many Faces of Maestro John Axelrod

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Classical music

The many faces of Maestro John Axelrod

John Axelrod, principal conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano “Giuseppe Verdi” (Source: D. Vass,

An extraordinary person is extraordinary in everything he does. It may be difficult to believe it, but wait until you get to know Maestro John Axelrod, who never fails to surprise the public, to enthrall them with his overwhelming charisma and adventurous approach to music.


Being one of the most distinguished classical music conductors of our time, Axelrod has tested himself in many considerably versatile roles. From a Harvard University student, crazy about rock, jazz and blues, along with classical music; to a rock'n'roll talent scout, who has helped to discover the Smashing Pumpkins and to launch the careers of Tori Amos and Marc Cohn; to a wine connoisseur, running a winery and preparing wine educational seminars – Axelrod's journey has been long and turbulent, but after all, highly rewarding.


Following his passion for fine wines, Axelrod compares a conductor to a sommelier who is supposed to know all about the wine, which is the score; to complement the meal the chef prepares which is the musicians; and to educate and engage the diner, which is the public.


gbtimes recenly had a pleasure to talk to John Axelrod, the unique “sommelier” and the principal conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano “Giuseppe Verdi”, to find out more about his successful career and curious life.

Eclectic childhood


Being brought up in Houston, Texas in a truly multicultural eclectic environment has helped Axelrod to develop a very open-minded and rather liberal attitude towards all races, religions, colors and genders.


“I am a 3rd generation American from Eastern European and Russian immigrants. My great grandparents brought the culture and traditions of the Old world to the New,” Axelrod begins. “My nanny Lillie May Williams was one of the first female African American Baptist ministers in Texas. My parents agreed that she could take me and my sister to her church.”


At a very tender age, Axelrod was introduced to music, thanks largely to Lillie's husband Joe who was a pianist and organist at the church. “As a three-year-old, I sat on Joe's knees while he played the instrument, and I would pick out by ear what he would play. He said to Lillie: "I think Johnny wants to play the piano." She told my mother. Et voilà! That was how it all started. I was playing gospel before Gershwin and the blues before Bach,” Axelrod recollects with a smile.


“The early Baptist church experience, combined with my Jewish singing in synagogue as a young boy and Lutheran chorals in my Episcopalian school education – all merged together to create my appreciation for different styles. Therefore, I was exposed to all the traditions which are present in music, from Brahms to Bob Dylan.”

Life-changing guru


Axelrod describes his first ever encounter with legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who was on tour in Houston, as “a rather auspicious and funny experience.”


“Lenny was attending the Gay Men's Chorus of Texas barbeque swimming party. It was either going there or not meeting Bernstein. So I took my bathing suit and went there,” Axelrod explains.


Their rather bizarre encounter marked the beginning of Axelrod's lifelong passion for conducting. “Fortunately, Lenny got interested in the music that I made. So I got to play the piano for him and he invited me to come and study with him. He was extraordinarily generous and respectful,” Axelrod notes. In many ways, Bernstein became Axelrod's musical guru, a source of inspiration, of personal and professional wisdom.


“Bernstein gave permission for a musician to be good at everything. He recognized my love for popular music, jazz, musical theater, film music, opera, oratorio, symphonic music, rock. For him, music was simply music. There was good music and bad music. Just choosing the good music could make a difference in one’s musical life,” Axelrod recollects one of the most significant lessons he adopted from Bernstein.


Watch this video from Axelrod's Classical Rock project that combines the best of classical music with the best of classic rock and represents the Maestro's fresh approach to music. Not a stranger to musical experiments, Axelrod courageously embraces a range of genres and styles.


“Nothing ventured, nothing gained”


Despite Bernstein's clear precept, it took Axelrod years (eventful and highly-charged) to get ready for “the leap of faith” to become a conductor.


“It was 1994 and I worked as a wine executive for the Robert Mondavi Winery. I had been wondering whether Bernstein was right and I should have pursued being a conductor. As I drove in the dark of the night, Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde came into my head. The sound was so loud I could not concentrate on driving. So I stopped my car to look out on Napa Valley in all its splendor. Not a cricket was heard, no wind, no frogs, no birds, no planes, no cars. It was, in the most humbling and sublime fashion, pure silence. The most beautiful music I ever heard. I got back into my car and started the engine. I turned on the radio, and the Tristan Prelude was playing. I took it as a sign of fate and quit my job the next day to become a conductor. I have been immensely rewarded ever since. Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Axelrod shares his incredible life story.


To pursue his calling, in 1995, Axelrod studied conducting at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in St Petersburg, Russia under Maestro Ilya Musin. There he got to know many of the great masters of today, from Temirkanov to Gergiev, to Jansons and Bychkov.


“Musin was the greatest pedagogue because he only cared about two absolutes: Meaning and Music. He helped his students understand what was beneath the notes, behind the music, the magic of the moment and the hidden truth and meaning of the composer. The other thing he helped us all understand was to be humble before the music and the musicians who make the music. Without offering confidence and respect to the musicians, it would be impossible to expect them to play to the best of their abilities. His technique was also an important element in my learning,” Axelrod reveals.


Classical love story


For Axelrod, love and music come hand in hand. “To me, making music is like making love. It's more than being only on first name basis. There is trust, confidence, understanding, collaboration, listening, sharing, showing fidelity to the music, and celebrating mutual accomplishments. These sound like qualities of any good relationship. And if a conductor and orchestra must be on good terms, so too should the conductor and soloist in order to have those magic moments while making music. But making beautiful music together? This romantic notion might be best achieved when the person with whom I collaborate also is the person I love,” Axelrod confesses.


Internationally recognized Swiss violinist Rachel Kolly d'Alba is the woman in question. Axelrod is fully aware that “there is this idea that soloists will be unfairly judged if working with a conductor, that they could only get their engagements if they have a physical relationship and vice versa.”


“Those who are in love, from the famous ones like Barenboim and du Pré or Sutherland and Bonynge or Mutter and Previn, to myself and Rachel Kolly d'Alba, we are all equally committed to the music, and we are not imposing our relationship on either the orchestra, public or industry,” Axelrod emphasizes.


On the contrary, the Maestro considers it a mutual benefit: “Actually, the public would like to see the more human side of the artists, and when they know we are actually a couple, they appreciate it very much. When we collaborate, the public knows it has that extra dimension added to the performance. It has love. And that makes for beautiful music together.”


Together, Axelrod and d'Alba have established an association that validates not only their artistic goals, but also their humanitarian vision. CultureAll has a mission to provide access and education for underserved communities at concerts in historic UNESCO locations.

“Brahms Beloved”: when love and music meet


Axelrod's talent for innovative and unconventional musical interpretations manifests itself through his unequaled ability to find something fresh and new even in the music that is traditionally considered orchestral core repertoire, such as Johannes Brahms' symphonies.


“Orchestras need to perform and record Brahms' symphonies to keep them alive in the repertoire and fresh with the public. I also believe that these symphonies are not museum pieces. They need to be experienced and reinterpreted in the 'Zeitgeist' of its time. It needs to be an organic experience,” Maestro Axelrod believes.


Axelrod's scrutinous exploration of the perplexed relationships between Brahms and Clara Schumann, a remarkable pianist and composer, Robert Schumann's wife and Brahms' lifelong muse, along with Axelrod's enthralling concept of impossibility to separate emotions and psychology of a composer from his music, have resulted in “Brahms Beloved” CD. It comprises Brahms' Symphonies 2 and 4, as well as Clara Schumann's ten Lieder. The second set of two symphonies and Lieder will be released in 2014.

In this video, Maestro Axelrod explains more.



Mouthwatering blog


“I have had the pleasure of visiting, and working in Italy over the last 25 years. From the north of Udine to the south of Ravello, from the West of Torino to the East of Bari, from the taste of Parma to the touch of the Como fog, from the pit of San Carlo to the pit of Teatro alla Scala, from the lights of Rome to the mystery of Venice. I love Italy. And I have been able to enjoy its 'cucina' even more,” Axelrod reveals one of his biggest passions.


The Maestro's extensive traveling around the world, however, has helped him to discover a major issue many Italian restaurants outside of Italy face: “Italian cuisine is in danger of being corrupted. Have you ever been served ketchup for tomato sauce? I have. And trying to find real Italian ingredients and recipes outside of Italy can often be a nightmare,” Axelrod explains.


That was a starting point for the maestro to create an“Autentico Italiano” food blog. However, there is much more in it than recipes and restaurant reviews. It reflects Axelrod's philosophy of authentic Italian cuisine.

Have you ever thought that music may sound like wine, and wine may taste like music? Axelrod, being used to crossing the lines, for sure, has. In his blog, Axelrod suggests a list of wines to accompany... music. Sounds bizarre, you say? Give it a try and you will find so much in common between those two! Both music and wine get better with age, to begin with.

Discover one more facet of John Axelrod's talent by reading his book, “The Symphony Orchestra in Crisis: A Conductor's View”, recently published by Naxosbooks.

Visit the official website for all the latest news about John Axelrod.

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