This summer, Axelrod's new book on the culture of the orchestra will be published by Seemann Henschel. His follow-up disc with Rachel Kolly d'Alba and Warner, "American Serenade", will be out later this year, and there are other recording projects in the pipeline. His many upcoming high-profile conducting engagements include a return to the Ravinia Festival.
One of the most personal and important projects he has undertaken is the new version of Bernstein's Kaddish symphony, with new narration by Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar - Axelrod and Pisar premiered this new version and have performed it around the world. Indeed, the conductor feels a deep connection to the music of his old teacher (he also conducted the first production of Candide at La Scala in 2007) and Axelrod will figure prominently in plans to mark Bernstein's 95th anniversary in 2013.
And it was the music of Bernstein that Inverne Price's James Inverne discussed with Axelrod. More precisely, what the composer's obsessive quoting from other works tells us about his own vision...
JI: There's a nice point near the end of Leonard Bernstein's On The Town where the characters say how they'll meet another time and repeatedly sigh a little "Ah, well". It's a clear reference to the end of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Is that Bernstein being clever-clever or is it important to understand his layered references to other composers he loved throughout his works?
JA: It's essential. If you don't recognise - as Bernstein told me, the 52 pastiche references of other people's music in his work, then it's impossible to properly understand his intentions. He had an original voice, this is something I've learnt, and that voice came about by some kind of cocktail of Beethoven, Hindemith, Ravel, Shostakovich, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, throw in a few others. Everyone, basically. He found his unique voice in the optimism of the post-World War Two period in America, where the optimism in his music found a resonance with the audience of its day, particularly his musical theatre music, and even the jazziness in the Serenade and some of his other music. Candide is based on a whole sarcasm about optimism, it's kind of a farce on the subject.
Yet the more serious side of Bernstein had more trouble being accepted. Even Mass, which had such a populist streak and with so many quotations of other people's music (and not just classical music), had such a serious concept behind it, a kind of liturgical mass for the flower-power generation. And it was too serious for the people of his time. Just as his Kaddish Symphony and The Age of Anxiety were too serious for their time.
So they wanted Bernstein's music to reflect the optimistic mood of the US having just won the war and with the explosion of the middle class. And with his smile, and his charm on TV, the idea that he might be anxious over the state of the world or his relationship with God seemed at odds with the image of him as the quintessential optimist writing mambos and fugues and riffs. If you don't know the influences on him, it's impossible to fully understand him.
JI: It's an interesting time to discuss this, with the issue of composers accused of plagiarism being discussed in a way that visual artists, say, are never subjected to.
JA: Every great painter copied the old masters before they could fine their own voice. Bernstein kept doing this his whole life. He takes quotations and adapts them, discombobulates them and puts them into a structure and form that makes sense in his own composition. Some composers just plagiarise, and a composer owes it to the public to offer something with an original idea.
JI: So it's OK to quote other musics if it's part of a scheme, if it leads the artist somewhere new and true?
JA: This gets to the crux of it all. Why is Brahms thought of as the musicians' musician? Because Brahms's music was composed regardless of the romantic sentiments or his own emotional state at the time. The music was composed and the concepts emerged from the writing of the music itself. Brahms doesn't go into writing symphonies with a programmatic idea already in mind, he composes the symphonies - under the influence of Beethoven, Schumann, Berlioz and others, but first and foremost he is creating music from which emotions and programmes can then be derived. That is the exact opposite of someone like Bernstein or Mahler. In Mahler's case, for all the absolutism of his music and the connections between his works, he had ideas for programmes in mind that he would bring into the music, so the music would reinforce a pre-existing emotion. Like Berlioz with the Symphonie fantastique, or Wagner, Mahler reinforces a programmatic idea. Bernstein is of that school, that before pen is put to paper, the emotion and the programmatic idea is there and brought to the compositional process.
So it is no wonder that Bernstein is searching through a library of musical references and resources to complement the emotions or ideas that he already had in mind. All of this reminds me of what he said to [the lawyer, writer and Holocaust survivor] Samuel Pisar when Bernstein said to him that he wanted to write an opera about the Holocaust. Sam said that it is impossible to dramatise people going to the gas chamber. "Then," said Bernstein, "I need you to rewrite my Kaddish symphony and make that about the Holocaust." So he would not hesitate to take a piece of music he himself had already composed and set it to meet that preconceived idea."
JI: There's that wonderful film where Bernstein is seen rehearsing Mahler with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, berating them for not taking it seriously enough, for not putting enough energy and emotion into the playing. And there are those who take a Stanislavskian approach to Mahler, in other words that the players are expected to take Mahler's markings as a signpost but then to throw themselves further along that route emotionally, in a very method acting kind of way! But would it be true to say that with the kind of programmatic music you describe, Mahler and Bernstein, it requires and rewards a more intense focus on the very specific emotional direction that does Brahms?
JA: The answer is yes, although ultimately the music is the music and speaks for itself. Much of the music that Bernstein loved came out of the later 19th century when the tone-poem was the ideal of orchestral form to many ears. It was anyway the standard form for a composition to succeed - the tone poem was to classical music what pop songs are today - so there is explicit drama there. But it's important to understand that people approach Brahms's music with an understanding about the music itself. They approach Mahler's symphonies with an understanding about Mahler the man as much as the music. And something of that is true about Bernstein.
Finding a balance between security in the notes we play and emotional freedom in expressing those notes, that is indeed like method acting. You are in the moment, you derive your expression and your action from the moment that you're in, and so every Mahler performance will be different because every moment is different and Lenny loved that idea because unpredictability and spontaneity can naturally to him. And it's essential to interpret his own music in the same way one would interpret Mahler's or Shostakovich's music. In other words taking the programmatic idea, delving into the composition and for every moment that you're in, finding the emotion derived from the music. And the Kaddish is the best example of that.
John Axelrod is currently writing a book about Leonard Bernstein's music. His book about the culture of the orchestra will be published this summer. He is represented by Inverne Price for the US, UK and Scandinavia (for other territories please refer to his general manager Elisabetta Longardi at Resia Artists) and for public relations.