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Bernstein via Angers: John Axelrod in Conversation (2011)

Originally published on WETA's website, Tuesday, 5.31.11, in anticipation of the Axelrod-led NSO concerts of Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish Symphony”, with text and narration by Samuel Pisar, June 2nd, 3rd and 4th of 2011. Re-posting of this account was largely inspired by this brilliant, marvelously honest and superbly written article in the Houston Press from Shaila Dewan: "Perfect Pitch". I could only wish that anything I have ever or will ever write would still ring so true twenty years later!

Angers is a small and picturesque town to the west of Paris in the Pays de la Loire region with about 160,000 inhabitants, cute (or bountiful) enough to attract ransacking Vikingsin the 9th century. In its center rises the impressive Cathedral Saint-Maurice of Angers, begun in Romanesque style a thousand years ago and – after fiery interruptions and setbacks – finished in Gothic garb early in the 13thcentury.

In it the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire performed Hector Berlioz’L’enfance du Christ, some time last month. To be precise, it was the Nantes-division of the bipartite Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire; the Anger division was busy playing film music at an Anger theater that night. Conducting the ONPL was their current music director, Houston-born John Axelrod, “America’s most unknown great conductor”. Or was it “America’s greatest unknown conductor”? That may not be a direct quote, but more or less the gist of his introductory remarks when we meet up after the concert, over the comforting fare of a few Belgian beers and pizza. Intriguing… of sorts.

That concert—Delphine Haidan (mezzo), Donat Havar (tenor), Stefano Palatchi (bass), and a familiar voice from his Washington appearances, baritone François LeRoux were the soloists—was impossible to judge after a tiresome trip to Angers via Paris. With four hours of sleep and eight hours of flying and riding through the countryside (I dream of train-travelling bliss by way of combining French high-speed rail tracks with German trains one day… until then the crammed discomfort of the TGV has to suffice), even the best performance of L’enfance du Christ would have been tough to get a proper grip on. At least the weather plays along; bright sunlight sent the gray and its intermittent raindrops scurrying, as an eager, late-to-middle-aged crowd waited to be admitted into the cathedral.

available at Amazon
Fazil Say, 1001 Nights In The Harem (Violin Concerto),
P.Kopatchinskaja / J.Axelrod / Lucerne SO

available at Amazon
W.Rihm, “CONCERTO”, Sotto Voce et al.,
Arditti SQ4t, N.Hodges, J.Nott, J.Axelrod, Lucerne SO

available at Amazon
R.Wallin, Act et al,
Grubinger / J.Axelrod, J-P.Saraste, J.v.Zweden / Oslo Phil., Kroumata Percussion Ens.

available at Amazon
Bernstein, Weill, Schoenberg, “Kaddish”,
S.Pisar et al./ J.Axelrod / Lucerne SO

available at Amazon
Krenek, Schreker, Bürger, Orchestral Works & Songs,
D.Henschel / J.Axelrod / Lucerne SO

available at Amazon
F.Schreker, “Expressive Dances”,
J.Axelrod / Lucerne SO

available at Amazon
E.Krenek, (Karl V &) Kehraus um St.Stephan,
(L.Koenigs / VSO &) J.Axelrod / Voralberg SO

For the Berlioz, beautiful and mildly tedious under the circumstances, Stefano Palatchi used his rich, mono-timbred veteran bass with plenty vibrato, a little less efficiency, and reveled in the many bits that allowed him to show off his lowest register. Mme. Haidan had several shy, wonderful moments while the tenor struggled to stay on pitch with his otherwise pleasant voice. LeRoux’s voice, meanwhile, was not what I remembered it to be; it seemed stripped of its core… a voice singing around the note. That and the part possibly lying too low for him, resulted in something more akin to Sprechgesang . The trio for two flutes and harps was the highlight it usually is, and the chorus bled beautifully into the pianissimo of the finale concentration was broken when things and/or people bumbled and tumbled about in the back of the reverberant cathedral. The orchestra acquitted itself without fail under Axelrod’s leadership, even if his technique reminded a touch more of Herreweghe than Maazel.

Afterwards, both of us exhausted, if for different reasons, we meet for the interview in light of Axelrod’s upcoming performances with the NSO… Sitting down, with his charming daughter and the au pair one table over, I decided not to turn on the voice recorder: For one, the work of transcribing is worse than, say, pulling asparagus. Secondly, conversations tend not to be as good when there is a recorder running because there’s a sense of ‘interviewer-interviewee’ that is not conducive to actual conversation. Thirdly, the temptation to just use the transcribed text is great, but always makes for an ungainly read; uninteresting to all but the most specifically pre-inclined readership.

So what remains of a nearly three hour conversation? Two memories: One of an awkward first impression and an overriding one of one of the better conversations—not just about music—I’ve had in quite a while. But to get to the latter, there was a half hour hurdle to overcome that consisted (seemingly) of PR-advice gone terribly wrong. Let’s pick one example: The phrase“360º artist” might have been thought a clever turn in some secluded image management office, but calling oneself that (or even being called that) is instant credibility-suicide. (Lucy Kellaway’s Martin Lukes couldn’t have done better, which is to say: worse.) So is excessive name-dropping, which is almost unfortunate, because in Axelrod’s case he’s got so many genuinely interesting names to drop. (Working in A&R for Atlantic and RCA Records in the late 80s and early 90s, discovering bands that are now household names, chilling with Axl Rose, or then—quite a different track—being a Director (i.e. event planner) for the Robert Mondavi Winery in Costa Mesa, and of course his conducting career that has had him to guest conduct most every great orchestra there is, do all make for awfully interesting conversation. But enduring the first unadulterated wave of it, one wishes for a slightly less ostentatious way to convey it.) Finally there is a very “artiste ” red silk scarf; a gratuitous touch that makes even this unapologetic wearer of cravats and pochettes [guilty] roll his eyes—inwardly.

But the Smashing Pumpkins, Leonard Bernstein, 150 conducted orchestras, his buddies Lang Lang and Daniel Hope, and a lachrymose tone of complaint in why his achievements were not better acknowledged back in the United States out of the way, the conversation turns genuine and the cringe-worthy element is finally gone: From Christoph Eschenbach—his teacher (of sorts) in Houston (Axelrod was also his assistant at the 1999 Schleswig Holstein Music Festival)—to Van Halen. About Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Fazil Say and shtick-or-not-shtick. We touch on Thomas Kuhn and life in Angers, where he has made one of his homes—his wife lives in Strasbourg, which causes some (travel-) strain—and says to have become part of the community. About the ONPL—of whose trucks and oversized billboards his contrefait (“that was not my idea!” he insists, a touch too eagerly) beams upon the city—and how it has the fourth largest subscription base among classical orchestras. (Only the two main orchestras in Berlin and the Munich Philharmonic top its roughly 10,000 subscribers.)

Eventually we get around to Axelrod’s performance of the “Symphony No.3 – Kaddish”, the purported reason for the ‘interview’ which is now the sprawling, genial conversation I like it to be. For one, it allows me to be frank about the feelings I harbor for that particular work (as indeed much, though not all, of Bernstein’s œuvre). To put it succinctly: That Leonard Bernstein wasn’t struck by lightning after the premiere of the Kaddish Symphony is incontrovertible evidence that G_d doesn’t exist. Or, in case I’m wrong on that, that his mercy and clemency is indeed limitless. The works’ critics are less kind:

I suggest to Mr. Axelrod that the work is stunningly pompous, trite beyond belief; a public ego-trip down “Leonard Bernstein Emotion-Land”. What really sinks the work is the text, which I have called a “pseudo-rebellious, insolent, juvenile and presumptuous way of Bernstein dealing with his troubled adolescence, a dominant father, and his unsettled relationship with the creator”, but I have seen better described as “one of the most embarrassing extravagances of its author’s career; a witches’ brew of maudlin sentimentality, radical chic outrage, and caricature of an honorable Jewish tradition. […Though] Bernstein could write witty light verse, his attempts at serious poetry bled purpler than Barney the Dinosaur.” (Alas, the author – a conductor – of this wittiest and on-point diatribe wishes not to be quoted.) Professional musicians seem split on the issue: Those who perform it think it has merit; the others seem to agree with the nickname “Symphony No.3 – Rubbish” which, if recollection serves me right, was given to it by Claudio Abbado or some such luminary. Calling it kitsch is still being too nice.

But that’s largely taking issue with the text, a weakness acknowledged even by Bernstein. It is also not the text that will be performed by Axelrod and the NSO. Leonard revised and shortened the text in 1977 (the work was premiered in Tel Aviv in December of 1963; its US premiere took place a month later in Boston under Charles Munch, poor sod)… but the atrociousness remained, even in lesser dose. Bernstein’s daughter Jamie wrote a new text that was recorded by Leonard Slatkin in 2003 (Chandos). But her text’s principle achievement lied in not surpassing her father; inserting soft-spoken sentimental recollections of her father in the work, and achingly sincere trendy idioms that don’t sound at all trendy, but smarmy. Dryly commented a conductor familiar with the work: “It seems that the self-indulgent apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

The music might be a different matter. Upon hearing my first live performance, I thought it was the usual hodge-podge, from bits of dodecaphony to Broadway tunes, smeared with ambition. Or better phrased by a musician friend: “The tunes are saccharine and childlike (in a bad way) as often happens when Bernstein succumbs to that irresistible desire to write something profound and grand… a lot of people who program it also use it as a vehicle to show the world how close they were to Bernstein. So the self-aggrandizement continues once removed.”

Ouch. Axelrod—4165 Facebook friends when I started this article three days ago, and 4208 now—listens to this, variously nodding in the “no ”, “yes ”, and “kindof ” directions… and when he gets a word in, he isn’t perturbed or defensive but, if anything, slightly amused. He launches an eloquent defense of the music itself (to which I’ve come around just a little, since those earlier impressions) and then extols the virtues of the latest text written for the “Kaddish”, the one by international lawyer, Bernstein friend, society-man, and Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar. (A complete performance of Axelrod conducting the Kaddish Symphony with the Orchestre de Paris in this, now most commonly performed version,is available on YouTube. The soloists—narrator Pisar and soprano Kelley Nassief—are the same as in the upcoming NSO performance.)

Because of Pisar’s biography—read Stephen Brookes very decent piece in the Washington Post on the subject (May 27th)—one of the biggest stumbling blocks of theKaddish has been removed, which is the preposterous aspect of the text, with high-dramatic anguish and suffering being evoked by someone whose greatest tragedy to date (1963, that is) seems to have been that his daddy didn’t attend his first recital. That, and empathy pain over Kennedy’s death. Having a story of mourning told to one by a survivor of the Holocaust is at an entirely different qualitative level than some speaker reciting Bernstein’s prose. It predisposes one to much more generous listening, because the suffering beneath the Kaddish is now genuine and a reminder of what is truly important in life (or death).

That said, if you are overly sensitive to the desperately politically correct, the hokey, and the preachy (which I tend to suspect behind things most others will cherish for the good intentions), the work still offers some challenges. (The new version’s self-serving prologue still desperately needs cutting, for example.) In any case, the merits of meaning considerably exceed the artistic merits of this version… and one can always focus on the music which less biased re-listening has revealed to be better Bernstein than I had probably given it credit for. Axelrod, in any case, only performs the Kaddish in this version, agreeing that any previous versions were questionable at best. In any case, the resonance of the work suggests he has a better feel for what it does to audience than I would; rather than reacting with embarrassment, audiences jump to their feet at the rousing choral finale, led by the soprano and ending with a flashy orchestral bang. Even at my most cynical, I can’t make myself belief that that’s (just) because they feel compelled by the subject matter or the presence of Samuel Pisar.

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