Perfect Pitch

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

Ultimately, the would-be conductor's career choices were limited: He could endure a long apprenticeship, go the academic route and become a professor, or he could start his own ensemble and conduct right away. Having watched musicians from the sidelines long enough, Axelrod chose not to wait. While working in Europe, he slowly fleshed out his game plan for Orchestra X. Houston seemed like an obvious place to give it a try. It has music schools at Rice and the University of Houston that he knew could provide musicians. The arts community appeared stable. The market for classical music did not, Axelrod claims, seem as saturated as in other major cities. And perhaps most significantly, Axelrod's family and friends are here. It was home.

In the Orchestra X loft at the Hogg Palace, Axelrod and his assistant Marianne Mayeux, who looks and talks like a film noir version of Jennifer Jason Leigh, are mulling over T-shirt designs. Boxes of Orchestra X koozies have been dumped on the floor, and a sample Orchestra X cigar clipper sits nearby. The Orchestra X mouse pads and Orchestra X temporary tattoos are on order. Everything is white on black. The phone -- 225-ORCX -- rings constantly.

In the Orchestra X logo, the "X" is formed by a fist holding up a cross-shaped lug nut wrench, looking for all the world like a piece of Soviet Realist propaganda. Someone suggests that the T-shirt might simply feature the hand with the wrench. "Yeah, well, right," says John, who believes that Orchestra X could soon serve as a blueprint for similar organizations around the country. "Because eventually the wrench will be like the Nike swoosh, right? But I don't think we're there yet."

Axelrod wears a pair of worn leather flip-flops, jeans and a fine-gauge tan sweater. His skin has a soft, blemish-free luster. Framed prints and drawings hang on the wall behind him, and in one corner of the room is tucked a straight-backed throne of an antique armchair and two chairs of Italian leather. "Don't live the life you planned," Axelrod is fond of saying, "live the life that's waiting for you." He is every inch the scion of wealth, with an aura that makes potential Orchestra X sponsors believe that he can deliver not just any audience, but the right audience. As he told one bright former debutante who came for a job interview, "Your father and your mother, and my father and my mother, are the ones responsible for this cultural landscape that we are blessed to enjoy. So it's our obligation to make sure that this cultural stability that our parents have set up for us exists for us and for generations to come."

Axelrod's grandmother, Dora, was one of the five "blond Baum sisters" (their life story, according to John, has been optioned by Joan Collins). The sisters, who grew up in San Antonio, married into prominent Houston families -- one, Ray, became a Weingarten, another, Ann, a Sakowitz. John's father, Jerome, was on the founding board of the Children's Museum, and is still involved in several Jewish causes. "My family is supportive," Axelrod says, "but this is not a vanity production. This is not about a privileged kid going to his family and saying, give me some money. I told them I didn't want to do it that way; I wanted to do it my own way." Yet his pool of donors does include family members (altogether he's raised, he says, $38,000 of the $76,000 he needs to supplement revenue from ticket and merchandise sales).

And of course, connections are often more valuable than cash. For the board of Orchestra X, Axelrod has tapped chums from St. John's School, the elite private school he attended growing up. Board member Marika Rudy and her husband, board president Kerry Rudy (son of developer Alan and boutique owner Janice, and John's former pledge maste>r in the Jewish fraternity Sigma Alpha Rho), both adore John, his concept and his business plan. "I think his planning has gotten him a lot of supporters among men," says Kerry. In an effort to provide "diversity," Kerry has helped persuade folks such as Mickey Leland's widow, Alison Brisco, and Texas Commerce Bank executive Richard Ramirez -- people with plenty more to offer, of course, than just diversity -- to join the board. "I have connections, so I just set up meetings and let John do the rest," Kerry says. "He's just infectious."

"John has enthusiasm 500 times over," gushes Marika. "He really knows and believes there is a need for this. He's so enthusiastic about it, how can you say no?"

But for every helpful person to whom Axelrod has easy entree, there is someone such as Sharon Roeske Haynes, whom he approached cold. Haynes is the part-owner of Solero restaurant, one of Axelrod's haunts and an Orchestra X supporter. "He was so overwhelming at first," Haynes says. "He was so happy to meet me and he was talking, talking, talking and I wasn't really sure if he wanted something from me." After seeing some Orchestra X literature and reading about Axelrod's background, Haynes, who is an opera fan, began seriously thinking of ways to help. "He was very persistent. He'd come in here all the time. He made himself known to me and my partners. I think he's very good at self-exposure." But, she adds, "the more I saw, the more I realized that he was committed and serious about this whole project."

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