Perfect Pitch

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

In an art world where marketing is seldom top-notch, Axelrod's talent has not gone unnoticed. His name has been bandied about in high-level meetings at places such as DiverseWorks, and he already sits on the board of TemplO, a new group that has taken over the former Zocalo Theater. These organizations may indeed have something to learn from him. At the concerts, galas, operas and high-dollar restaurants he so often frequents, Axelrod follows not the charity's rule of fundraising -- beg until you can beg no more -- but the businessman's: If you don't look like you need it, you'll probably get it.

Of course, great marketing and great artistry don't always come in the same package, and perhaps that's why there are those in whom Axelrod inspires violent skepticism. "We're all out there hustling," said one arts administrator after meeting him. "It's just that we're not all so obvious about it."

When John Axelrod attended a conductor's convention in California in 1994, the problem of how to build new audiences dominated the discussion. But Axelrod wasn't convinced that a solution would emerge from the classical musi>c establishment. "I became very aware of the fact that the conductors just did not seem to have the vision," he says. At the time, Axelrod was just beginning his own career as a conductor, but he had plenty of experience to which the other conductors could not lay claim -- experience that might make him uniquely suited for the job of selling classical music to the masses.

In fact, Orchestra X has the potential to resolve a conflict that has tormented Axelrod since childhood: the classical versus the popular. As a promising pianist with perfect pitch, he was urged early on to make the demanding commitment required to be a virtuoso. But you couldn't be Billy Joel or Elton John -- two of Axelrod's heroes -- if you became a classical soloist. Axelrod has always been torn between the rock concert and the concerto. "It's popular music's ability to communicate that interests me," he says.

In 1983, when Leonard Bernstein visited Houston for the premiere of his opera A Quiet Place, the conductor of one of the ensembles Axelrod played with introduced him. In his own career, Bernstein exemplified the combination of the popular and the classical, and Axelrod was fascinated by the man, whom he says took him under his wing. He still has the clipping from the Chronicle that tells of Bernstein, the Houston Symphony's then-conductor Sergiu Commissiona and "high school student John Axelrod" dining at the Lancaster. Bernstein, Axelrod says, told his mother that her son should become a conductor, thereby planting a seed that remained dormant for years.

Instead of attending a conservatory after high school, Axelrod chose to study music at Harvard, the alma mater of his father, who had gone on to become a successful stockbroker. Still, he didn't abandon popular music -- one of his rock groups, the Rhythm Method, won a Battle of the Bands contest that landed them on the Today show. After college, Axelrod went to the West Coast to work for a music publishing company and soon became a sought-after A&R man, discovering the Smashing Pumpkins and shaping successful careers for other artists. Russell Ziecker, a music-industry colleague who still lives in Los Angeles, remembers that at one point Axelrod negotiated a deal with Capitol Records, then didn't show up for work, popping up instead at RCA, which had made him a better offer overnight. "He burned a couple of bridges, in typical John fashion," Ziecker says, chuckling. What's typical John fashion? "He got the best deal for John."

After a succession of jobs, including stints as a Star Search talent scout, a manager for bands such as Jellyfish and director of the Robert Mondavi Wine and Food Center in Costa Mesa, where he planned special events, Axelrod's thoughts turned more and more to conducting, which he saw as a "fiscally responsible" way to make music. "I wasn't creating," he says. "I was consuming. I ate four-course meals and drank wine all day."

The question was how, in midcareer, could someone become a conductor? One answer, if you have the money, is to hire a professional to teach you. Axelrod had the money, and he hired Edward Cumming, then assistant conductor of the Pacific Symphony, to give him private lessons. Cumming says Axelrod, desperate to make up for lost time, made astonishingly rapid progress. Eventually he quit his job with Robert Mondavi and took several conducting workshops. The workshops gave Axelrod something Cumming couldn't -- hands-on experience. He conducted youth symphonies and several lower- to midlevel European orchestras ("the kind that make those $3.99 CDs," one musician observes), a few of which invited him back for professional gigs.

Despite his very real and numerous accomplishments -- he's even composed and recorded a chamber operetta set to 19th-century romantic poetry -- Axelrod isn't above a little resume padding. For example, he lists Leonard Bernstein as a composition teacher; asked about this, he says, "we talked about composition." Axelrod has a quality that's somewhere between slick and slippery, not least of all d>ue to his overwhelming sense of his own innocence. Yes, he uses his grandmother's handicapped parking tag, he once explained when caught doing so -- but only when there are plenty of spaces left for the truly disabled, and only when he, John Axelrod, is really in a hurry.

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