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A Beat Ahead

OrchestraX's quick success has been its blessing, and its curse

"Can we live without John?" Brochstein asks rhetorically. "Last season told us no. But the board decided we love OrchestraX so much, we decided to restructure the organization so it could survive. This is not John's play toy."

Luckily for OrchestraX, the next executive director was already there, waiting in the wings. Nicky Garfield had been on the board for three years; she was also a subscriber, a donor and, most recently, the general manager for the company. Axelrod's adoration of Garfield is apparent, and Brochstein admits that she is a much better fit than Cox. It is highly unlikely that without her British efficiency -- not to mention the assistance of new general manager Andrea Moore, who rose from the musical ranks -- the orchestra would have produced its debut CD last year, a recording of Prokofiev's Symphonie Classique.

Still, things were not always so harmonious last year as donations declined, the budget was reduced, and the public relations firms cut loose. Then, what Axelrod described as a nebulous press release led to a Houston Chronicle article that still plagues the orchestra. On April 20, the newspaper wrote, "OrchestraX board plans for Axelrod's departure" and went on to say, "The board plans to 'identify' a replacement for Axelrod by the end of the 2001-2002 season." How the paper could have gotten it wrong, as Axelrod insists, is still a mystery.

John Axelrod: He wanted to conduct his own orchestra; his success doing so has taken him away from it.
John Axelrod: He wanted to conduct his own orchestra; his success doing so has taken him away from it.

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Saturday, April 7, at 10 a.m. (713)225-ORCX
Angelika Film Center and Cafe, 510 Texas Avenue

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"The health and well-being of this orchestra, for the short term, the next three to five years, is very dependent on me, and I know that," Axelrod says. "You can put this in print: I am here to stay."

It was a sentiment he echoed to much applause during this year's Valentine's Day concert. An English-language, Texas-themed version of Puccini's comic one-act opera Gianni Schicchi, the concert was a huge success; it was also the first time Axelrod did not conduct OrchestraX. But even as Michael Butterman held the baton, Axelrod pulled the strings behind the scenes.

So where will OrchestraX be in five years? The board doesn't have an answer, or a long-term plan. "We don't have a step-by-step plan, no," admits Brochstein.

"I don't see myself here in five years," says Garfield. "I would like to see the orchestra flourish to the point where it can hire someone more qualified than me."

As OrchestraX reaches its first milestone, its upcoming fifth anniversary, the organization faces its stiffest challenge: implementing a board plan that was drafted by Garfield, Axelrod and Brochstein at a retreat this past February. The ambitious program calls for six concerts next season -- one more than the group has done previously -- as well as ChamberX concerts, a school program and some added staff. The operating costs will require a budget jump from this year's $436,250 to an estimated $600,000 to $700,000 for the 2001-2002 season. Besides being the front man for fund-raising, Axelrod will conduct all but one of the concerts.

Brochstein says it would take at least three or four people to replace Axelrod, but quickly adds there are no plans to phase him out. "The fact that he put together a symphony orchestra that actually puts on concerts is amazing. His creativity is amazing."

Axelrod himself is more practical. "Like any parent," he says, "you want to see your child grow and become independent." But as for now, he says, "I would have to be a fool to walk away from it."

No fool, the maestro was back playing the role of front man at a recent Bookstop event to promote OrchestraX's new CD. Axelrod also worked the crowd for the group's upcoming cross-generational concert at the Angelika Film Center and Cafe. He corralled a towheaded tot and her mother roaming the racks.

"Hi, would you like to go to a concert? I think you'd like this. I think your mother would like it, too." It was the rapid-fire staccato of a carnival barker. If not for his genuine enthusiasm, he could be mistaken for a nut -- although a very shrewd one.

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