Perfect Pitch

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

Among the pieces of literature that Haynes saw was Orchestra X's direct-mail debut. A sheaf of papers elegantly nestled in a four-winged, die-cut folder, the olive and black brochure is a marketing masterpiece, something that many older, richer arts organizations would give their eyeteeth for. Against a backdrop of poetic images (a railroad track for the Holocaust concert, a row of '50s bathing beauties for that requisite retro non sequitur), the concept of Orchestra X is sandwiched between pithy, relevant media quotes. There is a fundraising plea -- "I want to personally thank you for helping us help Houston" -- followed by Axelrod's looping signature and punctuated with his sycophantic mug shot.

This brochure held a particular surprise for me. When it arrived, I found my name on a dubiously long list of "cool people who care," alongside conductors, musicians and other supposed supporters. I was startled to see my name there, since Axelrod hadn't asked to use it. True, I had helped point him in the right direction a couple of times, and having known of him since he was the pianist for a performing arts camp I attended as a child, I even paid $25 to attend an Orchestra X benefit -- a far cry from being an official supporter. Still, I felt a bit curmudgeonly being cross with him about the appearance of my name, particularly since his whole body was wagging with a puppy-like pride about the mailer, a pride little dampened by the fact that he and Mayeux had to collate and assemble 4,500 of the pieces themselves. "I didn't think you would mind!" he said, then asked immediately, "What do you think of the brochure?"

There are some professions that require an ego that has been tried by fire. Conducting is one of them. A conductor, after all, has chosen an entire orchestra of highly trained people as his instrument. He must have not only musical knowledge, but strength of will. Charisma helps, as does conviction. In short, as one Orchestra X musician put it, "There haven't been too many conductors who haven't been megalomaniacs."

It's the second rehearsal of the nascent orchestra, and the string sections are working on After the Rain, a challenging piece by top British composer Barry Guy. Axelrod, wearing a black turtleneck and jeans, is deeply engrossed in what he's doing, and concertmaster Zachary Isaac Carrettin makes a few suggestions when things aren't going well. The suggestions are encouraged -- Orchestra X, says Axelrod, is supposed to be a new experience not just for the audience, but for the players as well. They're asked to voice their opinions. Tonight, the musicians rehearsing in the party room of the Hogg Palace are casually dressed and quiet. The buzz Axelrod created has allowed him to get the top players from the Rice University Shepherd School and the University of Houston Moores School of Music, and though some of them have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, they are working hard.

During a break, one of the musicians grooves out on the room, with its zebra-print rug and voluptuous chaise longues. "This place is hip," he says. "I mean, just look at this place." He likes the whole idea of Orchestra X, though he doesn't like the name. "It sounds like a Nation of Islam orchestra," he says. He is keen on Axelrod's marketing ability and his "whole image as a conductor," even. "He's not a good conductor, but that doesn't matter. He's humble about that. I was more impressed with him tonight than I was at the first rehearsal. Besides, it's hard to be a great conductor. It takes years." Later, the musician, who asked to remain anonymous, called to say that, for the record, he had revised his opinion once more. "I found him to be quite a brilliant guy," he said. "He took a lot of things into consideration that perhaps I thought that he didn't."

But the musician admitted that he's not sure of Axelrod's motives -- "It makes me think, what is his ultimate goal? It's going to be his name in the paper down the road, not ours."

Axelrod hates this idea, this notion that promoting Orchestra X is the same as promoting himself, and he says so out loud and frequently. "Orchestra X is not about me," he repeats, emphatically enough to short-circuit his microchip. "It's about the music." There is no reason, of course, why Orchestra X can't be about both. And indeed, all indications are that it is about both. The general consensus is that Axelrod has selected ambitious programming for his orchestra's first season, and as Christoph Eschenbach notes, "I see it right away if someone is a good musician or not. He is." But at the same time, for all his talk about his selfless desire "to make a difference in this city," there's little doubt that Axelrod has exhibited a particular genius for promotion -- not just for his orchestra, but for himself.

But Axelrod will not permit this suggestion. "I don't have to put my name on the front of the program: Artistic director, conductor, John Axelrod. I hate that -- I mean, whose ego are you trying to satisfy? The only place I need to put my name is to say, 'Thanks for coming, John.' " His hand swirls in a gesture of signing his name. "There will be my biography there for people who want to see it."

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