Perfect Pitch

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

Axelrod has proven to be a master of such positioning. Before striking so much as a single chord, Orchestra X had the cachet of the latest lounge club, commanding a degree of hype unheard of for most arts organizations. Chronicle society columnist Shelby Hodge cottoned on to it early ("I'm officially hip!" Axelrod yelped when his name appeared in her column on the downtown Swank Lounge), and so did Maxine Mesinger. The Paper, a slick gazette for the younger moneyed, fawned over what it dubbed "The X Factor." The new, ultrahip Spy Lounge will do a benefit for the orchestra in the spring, and plans are in the works for another shindig at Solero, which Esquire recently dubbed one of the hottest new restaurants in America. La Strada, Armando's and the Palace Cafe advertised in Orchestra> X's first concert program. So did the outre boutique Dare Ware.

On the art-world side, the Alley Theatre burped up a free computer for the as-yet-unproven organization, and Houston Ballet conductor Ermanno Florio agreed to advise artistically. From his apartment-cum-office at downtown's chichi Hogg Palace, Axelrod had charmed, it seemed, the whole of the Theater District -- and all before throwing his first concert.

While timing has no doubt been to Axelrod's advantage, good timing, as any first-rate salesman will tell you, is rarely accidental. John Axelrod is a first-rate salesman, one with the natural wiles to match his conviction. In fact, some say his acumen rivals that of his distant uncle, Houston's erstwhile style king Bob Sakowitz. Working on his oft-stated premise that "Beethoven's never been a problem. It's the way Beethoven is being presented that's the problem," Axelrod says that Orchestra X will seek to develop new audiences by presenting classical music in an "interactive, multicultural, multidisciplinary, almost confrontational environment that still preserves the integrity of the music." To that end, Axelrod plans to stage La Boheme in English in a local cafe and conduct a concert of orchestral dance music in an outdoor, Lollapalooza-style setting.

Orchestra X has also had the advantage of beginning with the one thing former National Endowment for the Arts chairwoman Jane Alexander says most arts organizations sorely lack: a business plan. Orchestra X's bulges with details that carry it through the end of the century. The plan profiles the orchestra's supposedly joystick-dependent target audience, and the orchestra's presentation adheres single-mindedly to that profile. In fact, the only thing the target audience might find lacking in Orchestra X is the slightest sense of irony.

All the other demographic bases, though, are covered: Because "tolerance," according to Axelrod's research, "is the third most important issue" for Generation Xers, the first concert, held last Su>nday, featured music composed by victims of the Holocaust as well as the Theme from Schindler's List. Because Xers comprise, in Axelrod's words, the "global, why-can't-we-all-get-along, Benetton generation," a rainbow coalition of high school students (the professed plan called for one African-American, one Asian, one Hispanic and one Jewish kid, but in the end Axelrod fell at least an Asian short of his quota) read poetry written by children in concentration camps, then told the audience their visions for the future. Xers demand interactivity; therefore audience members could write their own message for the future on little cards to be deposited in a time capsule. And because Xers are "involved in substantive causes" (or perhaps so that Axelrod could obtain the rights to perform Schindler's List) the concert "benefited" Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation.

In fact, all three concerts in the orchestra's first season "benefit" charities -- among them MECA (Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts) and the AIDS Foundation Houston. But that doesn't mean that ticket buyers can rest easy knowing part of their $15 ticket price goes to a good cause. "I thought, why should the concerts serve as vehicles only for corporate sponsorship?" Axelrod says when asked how much of the proceeds the charities will receive. "Why shouldn't they also provide visibility for charitable causes worthy of the attention of our target audiences?" He regards this as an innovative idea: The charities don't receive money, they receive attention; they get marketing -- something which, to Axelrod at least, is worth a lot. And Orchestra X, Axelrod believes, benefits as well, because association with charitable causes will somehow make classical music seem more relevant to the lives of young adults. This is a "win-win situation," he notes, and Orchestra X is all about win-win situations.

When Axelrod explains all this, he can be quite persuasive. In the face of his enthusiasm, he is difficult to turn down, and even more di>fficult to shut up. It's as if he has a microchip implanted in his brain that determines which carefully crafted pitch to use when, and someone has nudged the control lever to overdrive. To Orchestra X's musicians, accustomed to conductors whose prowess far outweighs Axelrod's, Axelrod is humble: "I will be a student until the day I die." To the wealthy mothers (read: potential donors) of Axelrod's high school friends, he is patiently Socratic: "You know the musical Rent? The Hair of the '90s? Well, you know that the musical is based on La Boheme, right? Well, Rent is coming to Houston in March. And we're doing La Boheme ... in February! We're doing the opera based on the musical based on the opera!" To corporate reps he gives a bulleted list of the benefits of buying in, including the chance to "demonstrate to the community that by helping one arts organization you help them all."

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