John Axelrod

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10 Jan 2011
„Crossover is for the industry“
Frankfurter Rundschau

Frankfurter Rundschau

Culture section, 10.01.2011


Interview with conductor John Axelrod


„Crossover is for the industry“

What can I do for you?

Save the Western European musical culture, Mr. Axelrod. Can

you help us?

I don’t know if I am appropriate for that. I was born an

American, now I'm rather an „Ameuropean", not only because I

am involved in European music, but also because of my life.


You are chief conductor of the Orchestre National des Pays de

la Loire, isn’t somebody in such a position in Europe also

responsible to save its culture?


As an American I am perhaps a little more optimistic, I do not

believe that anything needs to be saved. Here in France for

each composer there are at least 20 painters, writers,

philosophers, sculptors. In Germany it is vice versa. But I also

know that, according to a statistic, before the Second World

War music was heard or played in fifty percent of all German

households. Twenty years later it was apparently common only

in ten percent of the households, the number has now probably

sunken further still.

So I understand the German pessimism, but I think

that German-speaking countries still have the best development



In your work with the orchestra here in Nantes, what are you

doing differently from your predecessors?

I am not the only one changing the orchestral work, there are

many conditions that have changed. I think above all that the

conductors have changed. They have become more mobile,

have expanded their repertoire and can adapt better to local

conditions. In France, when there is a problem, you have to talk

a lot: Where is the problem, what is the problem, who is

responsible, what is the solution? During a rehearsal one can

philosophize. In Germany, the way to the solution is much

shorter, a lot happens without saying a word, only with a hand

movement, with glances, with gestures. A conductor has to

understand the psychological and anthropological requirements

of his work.

We do not play the music but work with the people who play the

music. We direct the people.


Therefore also the audience.


Yes, sometimes. The relationship between the musicians and

the audience is interdependent, and the experience in the

concert hall is a collective one. As a conductor I organize it a

little like a coach does with a football game.


And how do you attract the crowds into the stadium?


The Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire has more than ten

thousand subscribers in the region, in Nantes, Angers, Le

Mans. Here in western France there is a real hunger for music,

this is a great stroke of luck. Our orchestra has

almost a monopoly. The second stroke of luck: the orchestra

has brought me here with the assignment to be chief conductor

and program responsible, they let me realize my ideas, they

actually expect that of me. We conceive every concert with a

particular idea, which can then be followed throughout the

evening. Recently we did "Amadeus", a play with music, a

wonderful success! We have commissioned a composition to

Sergei Prokofievs’ grandson, he lives in England and will

compose variations on Schiller's "Ode to Joy", which supplied

the text for the final chorus of Beethoven's Ninth. But if you

want to have an audience, the first and most important thing is:

You must get involved. You have to play as if life and death

depended upon it. The audience here in France wants to feel

commitment, particularly the younger ones expect this. The

second thing is: One must communicate the desire to share the

music with ones audience. This has a lot to do with

presentation. The traditional concert format has been passed

on to us from the late 19th Century, but we now live in the 21st

Century. We are not in church, and I am not a priest. One has

to try to understand the audience. And this is not just the

famous American sentence about the customer always being

right. Our job is music, and you have to understand what it can

mean to todays’ audience. The orchestra must also be

convinced of it. Only then can you convince the audience.


Your program "Aimez-vous Brahms?" consisted for example of

pieces that make reference to each other formally and

historically. Is that the key to your success: to create didactically

conceived programs?

Absolutely. If one establishes references between the different

pieces in a program, there is a greater chance to open the eyes

and ears of the audience. I have nothing against this type of

didactics, In fact I think that this is my main task.

We do not play „school“, we offer a complete work of art.

"Aimez-vous Brahms" takes Brahms very seriously. This is

essential. But the fact that we started with Webern and ended

with Ravel may have shed a different light on Brahms' Fourth



Does the audience recognize the structural relations that you

see between the pieces?


I think so, at least in part. We have open rehearsals, and I talk

to the audience in the same way as I do with the orchestra. It is

important to show that we are doing a job in the publics’ interest

and that we are personally involved. If I go to the bakery in

Nantes, it is possible that the baker says: Maestro, I am coming

to your concert tonight! Or in a shop where our poster is

hanging, a saleswoman looking back and forth between

me and the poster asks: Do you have a brother who is a

conductor? And she is then quite surprised when I say: No,

that’s me, and I live here too! Here we are not afraid of coming



But to confront musicians and audience in a non-distant fashion

can only be one aspect of your musical teaching.


Of course. Although the most important task is left to the

families. That is why I mentioned the statistics in the beginning.

Here in France Jean-François Zygel, with his Parisian "Leçons

de musique." has permanently changed the situation of music.

But he also depends entirely on the parents, they are the ones

that have to create the first positive experiences for children

with music. Incidentally, for the upcoming season we have

asked Zygel to compose a concert for families and orchestra so

that we can compete with reality TV! We can encourage

families to take more interest in music, to actively get involved.

Family life has now become a very fragmented thing. We

mustn’t advertise only for the young audience. We also want

the parents and grandparents. That’s the only way you can

ultimately be successful. I know by now the sight at our

concerts: in the audience, sitting next to each other, I often

witness three times the same face, Grandfather, daughter and

grandson. This is new. I see this as a proof of the success of

our work.


Perhaps the French concert audience is easier to impress than

the German one?

Perhaps. However, it can also be very indignant, as the

historical example of Stravinsky's "Sacre" shows. Today we

hardly have the potential for scandals.


Why would you need scandals?

There are of course good and bad controversies. There is far

too much media and information for a day that lasts only 24

hours. That’s why many times some people think that with a

scandal they can gain attention. A hundred years ago, the

biggest scandals came from music: from harmony processes,

from rhythmic issues. We are very far away from this now.


I would like to come back to the family as target group. In

Germany in most music institutions there are many educational

programs: school-, family- and lecture-concerts, staged

concerts, lectures. What is different about your practice?


I think the educational programs are a very good thing. But you

can’t do everything for everyone. You can begin working if you

understand that the public is made out of people with very

different needs. This certainly doesn’t work if you remain with

the notion that an orchestra is an institution of the 19th Century

and that it represents high culture. We used to have other

conductors, and people at that time expected probably more of

a dictator. But this is the 21st Century. I'd rather be a conductor

like Obama: I listen, I’m open to dialogue. And the amazing

thing is: the orchestra responds and the audience as well. The

orchestra has started to work as a chamber music ensemble.

They listen to each other,

while working they develop a new harmony. The audience

senses that and talks about it. That’s what I mean when I say

we must serve the public.

As artists we do not have to bend down to the audience. And it

is nonsense to play crossover programs.

Crossover is something for the industry, generating lower

quality  standards that are not for musicians. As an artist it is

ones responsability to pay great attention to quality, otherwise

education makes no sense. The audience wants to be proud at

having listened to a good orchestra.


You mentioned before an analogy between the church and the

concert hall.


You have to be silent to concentrate. However, we need to

rethink and reshape all of our roles and behaviors: musicians,

artistic directors, but also you, the critics, the press. As you can

see, I no longer represent the old notion that we as artists

shouldn’t talk to critics. Together we all form a unit to which also

the audience belongs. We need to move to a new paradigm of

the concert, we are experimenting. Sometimes nothing comes

out of it, but sometimes it does: We have to continue working.

We need to feel that something real is happening, especially in

a concert. But first comes the music. That’s what we must focus

on. There’s nothing wrong with good-looking young people on

stage, on the contrary,

but if they have nothing else to offer, they are uninteresting. We

have to take music seriously.


Interview: Hans-Jürgen Linke



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