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A Beat Ahead

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

Twelve years ago, when OrchestraX founder and artistic director John Axelrod was a mere event planner for Robert Mondavi, he found himself driving through Napa Valley, reflecting on the arc of his young life. Educated at Harvard, where his Houston stockbroker father went to school, Axelrod had flitted from job to job -- from A&R man in the L.A. music biz to band manager to wine marketer -- none of which seemed to quiet an old passion. As he drove through the valley, his thoughts turned to his childhood love of classical music, his teenage conversations with Leonard Bernstein, and his early promise on the piano, all of which now seemed little more than riffs to an unfinished symphony. That early morning in California, he imagined a massive orchestra rumbling to life the prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. He stopped the car and walked around, drinking in the view of the pristine wine country. He turned off the symphony in his head and absorbed, for the first time that he could remember, absolute silence.

The man with perfect pitch, the musician who says he knows the pitch of the hydraulic drills outside his well-appointed downtown Houston apartment, was struck by the silence. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the silence in his own stalled music career. Whatever it was, he got back into his car and turned on the radio. The first music he heard was the prelude to Tristan und Isolde.

John Axelrod quit his wine job the next day.

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

So began his crusade to become a conductor. His path to the podium was not a traditional one; it would not pass through any conservatory. His path more befit the generation he likes to embrace: It was a fast track, a very fast track. He took advantage of a crumbling Eastern bloc economy by attending conducting seminars and workshops hosted by former communist country symphonies in need of cold cash. It was a crash course, but a crash course is exactly what Axelrod wanted. He wanted to conduct, and he wanted it now. But he didn't want just any assistant conducting job at some podunk symphony.

Axelrod took his experiences from two years abroad (see "Perfect Pitch," by Shaila Dewan, December 11, 1997) -- "I learned a lot about the vertical structure of the failed orchestra….I saw what didn't work" -- and combined them with his music-biz savvy, his marketing expertise, his family connections and his nascent musical skills, and started to build his own orchestra. This one would appeal to people his own age, and more important, he would conduct and control it artistically. It would be, he thought, a "rock band that plays classical music."

Nearly five years from those first visions of OrchestraX, and nearly four years from its official launch in the fall of 1997, the Gen-X orchestra has been more successful than imagined, but less successful than hoped. Based in part on its ability to present repertory works in inventive and accessible formats, OrchestraX's season-ticket holders jumped from 16 people in the first year to 250 in the second; its operating budget rose from $175,476 to $342,346 in the same period.

So quickly was the group growing that Southern Living wrote in the fall of 1999, as Axelrod and company were approaching their third season, that OrchestraX was the next big thing in classical music and that the organization's budget would mushroom in the 2000-2001 season to $600,000. It also quoted Axelrod as saying, "Now we have the problem of finding bigger places to play or adding dates." But the budget didn't grow in the third season, or the fourth, and both audience and program numbers stayed the same.

"A coupled of things happened," says Axelrod, now 35. "And it was all because we grew too fast. What at first was my asset to the orchestra, my visibility and involvement, became a liability."

Axelrod's ever-increasing skills at the podium and OrchestraX's media exposure created two problems: Many of the young musicians were suddenly being offered full-time gigs with the Houston Symphony as well as the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet orchestras; they were also moving farther afield for jobs. What's more, Axelrod's dream of being a maestro, like his role model Christoph Eschenbach, was becoming a reality. Thanks in part to a high-powered agent, who also had represented Eschenbach, Axelrod was being asked to conduct Krakow's Sinfonietta Cracovia, the Paris Orchestre Lamoureux and the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra.

As he spent less time with his own orchestra, Axelrod stepped down from his post on the board and encouraged the directors to hire administrative help. After a national search, the board hired Gregory Cox as the first executive director. He lasted just six months. Axelrod admits he didn't click with Cox, and the constant discord was at times "too much of a hassle." In the end, Cox chose to move on.

"Of course I was disappointed when he left," says board president-elect Benjamin Brochstein. The attorney and CPA is also a member of the Houston Symphony board, a fact that made him attractive to OrchestraX and its young and often inexperienced directors. Brochstein felt the departure of the organization's administrative head and Axelrod's frequent absences were cause for serious concern.

"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.

"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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