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
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
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
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