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.

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."

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.

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."

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."

Shortly thereafter, a UH architecture student drops by the Hogg Palace with the program cover for Orchestra X's first concert. It's a bright yellow solarized photo of a woman playing a television set as if it were a cello. In one of the many moments of serendipity in Axelrod's life, he found the image "waiting for him" while attending a gala in the UH architecture school building. It was on display, part of a class project for the Houston Symphony's young artists competition, and the designer just happened to be nearby. The image had been too cool for the symphony, the student said, but he was happy to let it be used by Orchestra X.

Looking at the program cover, Axelrod is excited, enthusiastic, thrilled. What he holds in his hand is evidence that his concept is on the brink of becoming a reality. But it's also evidence of something else: that there is, perhaps inevitably, a gap between a sales pitch and reality. For there, underneath "inaugural season" and above "Orchestra X" are five words: "John Axelrod, Artistic Director, Conductor.

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