Perfect Pitch

John Axelrod has a plan to make classical music hip--and himself hot

The incident could have been a disaster. But for John Axelrod, it became just one more sales opportunity.

Axelrod, a young conductor and composer, had been back in his hometown of Houston for a few months pushing what he claimed was the future of symphonic music. Orchestra X, he called it, and to anyone who'd listen he'd explain, often in excruciating detail, just how he was going to roll Beethoven over. He'd tell them how he was going to break the chains of tradition that had shackled classical music to outmoded approaches, approaches that made it all but impossible for members of his generation, the much-maligned Generation X, to fully appreciate the genius of orchestral works. He'd tell them that he was someone to listen to.

At the moment, though, Axelrod was the one doing the listening. Comfortably ensconced front row center in Jones Hall, he was taking in a Houston Symphony performance of Beethoven's Eroica. Dressed in a navy jacket and tie, he turned his green eyes heavenward, looking for all the world like an Enlightenment-era saloniste. Then -- Brrrip! Brrrip! It was the muffled chirp of a cellular phone. His cellular phone. Quickly, Axelrod dove to silence the offending item, ducking below the line of chair backs, as evident to all as an ostrich burying its head in the sand. There he remained, cowering. Had he intended to steal attention from the Houston Symphony, he couldn't have planned it better.

But Axelrod's performance was not over. As the Eroica's first movement came to a close and its funeral march began, his breath shortened. His face went pale; cold sweat broke out on his palms. A pain shot through the left side of his chest. Still hunched over, Axelrod scooted past a row of patrons, slipped out a side door and onto the sidewalk, whipped out the offending phone and dialed 911. He paced back and forth, anguished.

"I can't believe it," he announced. He clapped his hands to his forehead, then gestured wildly. "Here I am trying to support classical music, and look what I've done!" He repeated this to various bystanders, adding, by way of explanation, "I'm starting an orchestra!"

Axelrod was having, the paramedics would later explain, not a heart attack, but a panic attack, one brought on by acute embarrassment. But "I had a heart attack!" was too good a line to let go of; it guaranteed a sympathetic audience, and so Axelrod, a king of the well-turned testimonial, used it repeatedly when recounting the tale. He used it, for example, the following night when, after returning to hear the Eroica through to the end, he strode past security and knocked on Houston Symphony Conductor Christoph Eschenbach's door.

Most people guilty of a cellular faux pas might have slunk off quietly. Not Axelrod. He wanted to apologize, he told Eschenbach, for his dramatic exit the preceding day. Eschenbach looked at him, faintly surprised. "I didn't notice," the conductor said. Axelrod, however, would not be deterred.

"I had a heart attack!" Axelrod said, and so the pitch began. The bit about the cellular phone disappeared, replaced with talk about the high stress of putting together an orchestra. The funeral march became a major protagonist, as Axelrod described the way the pounding music caught him up in a sweep of emotion so intense he could no longer breathe. In his words, the Eroica's funeral march nearly caused his own funeral. "Oh! I was just OH!" he said, gazing upward to indicate his loss for words.

As Axelrod soliloquized, Eschenbach could do little but smile and nod, and smile and nod he did. Axelrod remained resolutely earnest, but it was clear that he was selling one more member of Houston's musical establishment on John Axelrod, passionate music lover. And in so doing, he was selling one more member of Houston's musical establishment on the possibilities inherent in Orchestra X. As it happened, this was not the first time Eschenbach had heard one of Axelrod's ardent speeches. And like so many others, the maestro had been quite won over. Though he had never seen Axelrod conduct, Eschenbach would say later, he was certain that the young man's new orchestra would be a success.

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That classical music is perceived to be in a state of semi-crisis is not exactly news. Though some studies show that the average age of the classical music lover has remained constant over several decades, of late, national music critics have begun beating their chests in anguish over the graying of the symphony audience and the need to recruit younger patrons to ensure the art form's survival. And survival is nowhere more immediate an issue than in Houston, where the city's leading exponent of classical music, the Houston Symphony, has been floundering in financial and artistic uncertainty.

That may be one reason why the teachers, musicians and other professionals the 31-year-old Axelrod has been proselytizing on behalf of Orchestra X can ill afford to dismiss him, and why curiosity about the nascent orchestra has reached a fever pitch among music aficionados. Orchestra X could, after all, signify the new approach the classical world thinks it desperately needs. But to work, the orchestra will have to be carefully positioned -- as a contribution, rather than a threat, to Houston's existing arts organizations, as an outlet for respectable musical talent and as a hot ticket for fickle twenty- and thirtysomethings.

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