X files... How do you spoon-feed the classics to sensory-taxed post-baby-boomers and actually get them to open their ears? Is there really a way in which Bach, Beethoven and Wagner might be seen for the ageless superstars they are by a generation raised on TV theme songs, fast-food jingles, top 40 radio and arena rock?
John Axelrod thinks so, and he has a plan. Last year, the Houston-bred pianist/conductor/composer founded OrchestraX to, shall we say, orchestrate his strategy, which in early December will culminate in the budding ensemble's first performances at Stages.
"The biggest problem facing orchestras today is how to develop new audiences," says Axelrod. "It's harder for symphonies because they're still trying to follow a traditional format that, for many young people, doesn't offer much meaning. That format is rather collective and passive in its presentation. You come in, you sit en masse, you're isolated from the artists on-stage. It's like watching television.
"We basically offer programs that are accessible and identifiable to young people through the content, in venues that are also accessible and identifiable to young people."
It's a mouthful, but Axelrod's words glisten with purpose and a bit of salesmanship. Perhaps that's just what a project of this nature needs: someone willing to give it the hard sell. Gearing classical music ensembles toward a 16-to-36-year-old demographic is not without precedent. In an era of federal arts budgets cuts, musician strikes and shrinking audiences, most U.S. symphonies, large and small, have little choice but to reach out to the younger crowd -- and fast. Still, the way OrchestraX plans to go about it -- with multimedia formats, interactive participation between artists and patrons, less intimidating concert environments, low ticket prices and casual dress codes -- is truly unique.
Axelrod, a graduate of St. John's School, is a firm believer in the notion that traditional arts education programs simply aren't effective. "I remember being bused into Jones Hall at eight years of age. I sat down with my friends, and we're hearing Peter and the Wolf for the first time," he says. "Kids were just moving to the music as their bodies would naturally do, and some chaperone comes up and goes, 'Shhh.' From there on, it turns them off. We want to help heal those old wounds."
At 31, the Harvard-educated Axelrod is already a ten-year veteran of the symphony podium, and he's also occupied a few extracurricular posts along the way. Aside from waving his baton all across the globe (the Orange County Youth Symphony, the Vanderbilt Symphony, the West Bohemian Symphony, the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic and the Kromeriz Chamber Orchestra are among his many conducting conquests), Axelrod has sampled the business end of things as well. Moving to Los Angeles after college, he put in hours as an A&R rep for RCA/BMG and Atlantic, rubbing elbows with high-level label executives and playing a part (however small) in the careers of artists such as Marc Cohn and the Smashing Pumpkins. He worked a while as an event planner for the Robert Mondavi Winery. He's written for Billboard.
But, as Axelrod so eloquently points out, this current project isn't about him; it's about OrchestraX. And, in a mildly pushy, well-enunciated style that betrays the promotional savvy he acquired working on the Left Coast, Axelrod talks up its potential for success.
"There's no other place in America where this could occur," he gushes. "In Los Angeles you have over 30 orchestras, in Houston you have four -- and only one major orchestra, so there's very little competition. The stability is extraordinary, yet the window of opportunity is also extraordinary."
Currently, OrchestraX is in the organizational phase, recruiting musicians and hitting up private donors to contribute toward its proposed first-season budget of $110,000. In keeping with its youth-oriented bent, most of the players are coming from Rice University's Shepherd School of Music and the University of Houston's Moores School of Music. So far, says Axelrod, supply is outstripping demand.
"The talent pool is so remarkable here," he says.
Look out, Houston Symphony, there's a cocky kid in your rear-view mirror, and he looks to be in an awful hurry.
Temporary harmony... While we're on the subject of the Houston Symphony, it appears all is well between the symphony's musicians and the orchestra administrators -- for now. Late last month, a strike was averted when the musicians gave their okay to a one-year contract that allows them to carry on this season without a salary cut while the Symphony Society attempts to balance its $18.3 million budget.
Evidently, six-figure grants from both the Wortham and Brown foundations, as well as the city's waiving the symphony's rent requirements at Jones Hall, were enough, for the time being, to maintain the musicians' $62,400 minimum salary level. The contract that provided for that level expired earlier this summer, touching off heated negotiations between the players' union and the symphony's management, which had proposed a 7.7 percent wage cut. Musicians had threatened to strike, but this 11th-hour detente should assure stability for another 12 months.
And then what? Isn't this latest move simply postponing an inevitable showdown? Gee, something to look forward to.
Release activity... Tuesday, HSPVA-student-turned-bandleader-turned-film-scorer-turned-solo-artist Scott Szabo will debut tracks from his first solo effort, All Stripped Down, at Cactus Music and Video. Recorded primarily with the help of a sequencer and guitarist Bob Sutton (Szabo's partner in his previous band, Wall of Miracles), the new CD is low-key and occasionally engrossing, despite some rather awful lyrics (further proof that lyric sheets should be banned from local releases). I'm told Szabo's music goes over better live. Here's also hoping his dunderheaded prose isn't as decipherable on-stage.
Freedom Records has finally set a release date for the Hollisters debut, The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure. Look for the CD in stores October 18. Meanwhile, the guys haven't exactly been slowing down to ready themselves for the big push. Instead, they've been performing at their usual superhuman pace over the last few weeks. Working their tails off at the Power of Houston festival a short while back, the group put in an inspired performance under a blanket of stifling humidity. Sweat dripped from every visible Hollister appendage with the regularity of a leaking faucet, while children -- freed temporarily from their parents' grasp -- danced back and forth in front of the stage like ducks at a shooting gallery. The show was shaping up to be good, clean family fun until lead singer Mike Barfield said something into the mike about needing a shot of whiskey. There's the Hollisters we know and love.
-- Hobart Rowland
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