What do you do when you have a giant appreciation for all the wonderful things that stimulate the senses and you happen to live in one of the more picturesque zones of the world? If you can tear yourself away from the view, you make a series of events that combines them all, producing joy and feelings of goodness that create waves outward to the rest of the world. I call it The Axelrod Effect and it’s part of the philosophy of ‘Think Globally, Act Locally,’ the brain child of world-renowned conductor Maestro John Axelrod.
Based in Chardonne, Switzerland, located between Lausanne and Montreux on Lake Geneva, Maestro Axelrod set out to create a concert series that would bring together something for all the senses, incorporating elements from the immediate region. The concept was to serve local fare prepared by area chefs in combination with vintners who represent the ancient tradition of biological and agricultural practice of winemaking in the region. Add in musical artists from these same environs and you have it: Concerts Culinaires de Chardonne!
If you could take 12 favorite things, put them together in a package with a bow and gift it to 100 people you would have what Maestro Axelrod has done in putting together the crème de la crème. It all happens in the canton of Vaud in Switzerland, in the district of Lavaux-Oron.
I asked the maestro to give us the details. Let’s see what he said…
Kathy Geisler: What was your initial inspiration to make these multi-sensorial events combining the aesthetics of your region?
Maestro Axelrod: I have lived in Switzerland since 2004 and have been an oenophile since the 1990’s. At that time I was the director of the Robert Mondavi Wine and Food Center in California’s Napa Valley.
When I discovered Chardonne with its rolling picturesque UNESCO Lavaux vineyards just above Lake Geneva, the Alps of France and Italy off in the distance, I thought I had found paradise.
I felt so at home in Chardonne. I wanted to find a way to give something back as an expression of my gratitude to the place which had given me so much.
Having been the music director of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Theater, I know well the economic impact a successful concert series in a prized venue can have.
Among the thousands of music festivals in Switzerland, none were specifically oriented towards the aesthetic and thematic connections between wine, food, and music — until now!
That is how Concerts Culinaires de Chardonne was born, with the purpose of nurturing young musical talent, to celebrate young chefs, and to support the over 1,000 year old biological and agricultural practice of winemaking in the region. Even with so many dimensions, still, we are starting small but with the high ambitions of any start up.
Kathy: Can you talk about how you were able to put all the elements together to make this?
Maestro: To be honest, it is like conducting after a long time. You have it all in your head and it’s second nature. I have done so many projects over the years, it becomes instinctive to know what to do, and to be able to adapt to the obstacles along the way — because there are always obstacles. With the coronavirus I had to reschedule the Concerts Culinaires several times. Even when the market opened up again and people were able to go out again for entertainment and food, we necessarily have had to incorporate all the safety measures to comply with the health regulations.
One hitch that came up was when I retained a local design firm to help with the website. After four months they had not been able to realize the project. Without the website, the tangible expression of this intangible concept could not be announced or published. Lesson learned: when it comes to creative, better to do it yourself. So I did the oldest trick in the book: I designed it myself and then engaged an excellent public relations firm to focus on brand awareness for Concerts Culinaires de Chardonne.
After all, this is not a one-off show. Concerts Culinaires de Chardonne has the intention to be a regular series of concerts featuring world class musical and culinary talent and the wines of the Lavaux. As it grows, so will the organization, and so will the opportunity.
Kathy: It’s interesting that you combine things to create something for the senses. Music is usually experienced all on its own. Did you want to make an event that would attract a broader audience with a variety of offerings? How does this event reflect your mission in music and life?
Maestro: I have been called an aesthete and an epicurean. I welcome these titles because I do believe life should be enjoyed and what better than wine, food, and music to provide such a Bacchanalian lifestyle?
In all seriousness, I have never considered music to be experienced only through the ears. My ears have always been my greatest source of identity. Perhaps because I have perfect pitch, I have the freedom to use my eyes, nose, mouth, hands and all other senses corporeal and spiritual.
It is my belief that when music engages all the senses it can create a hyper-musical flow of synesthesia, an optimal experience that provides a deeper meaning and connection for all involved. There is a reason for this. We have two sides of our brain joined by the corpus callosum. Being a parent allows me to understand the nature of the developing brain and how the right and left brain do not always work in tandem — especially with a two year old. With these multi-sensory concert experiences combining the best of wine, food, and music, I hope to create a convergence of the two sides of the brain, allowing for a complete experience that transcends consciousness. My version of nirvana.
Kathy: What things have you learned and realized from doing this kind of event?
Maestro: I have learned the good and the bad. The trite and the true.
First, the journey is always more fun than the destination. While the events themselves are the manifestation of the energy and effort, it is the process of creating and sharing that becomes the means to the end. Joy shared is exponential.
And secondly, ideas without action are useless. Because I am an Aries, I feel a compulsion to be active and productive. I am a firm believer that the paradigm of presenting classical music (all music) is dramatically changing. Since 1996, when I founded OrchestraX in the US, I have been challenging the boundaries and traditions of programming and performance. Today, over 20 years later, I am witnessing the entrepreneurial spirit of young musicians who are independent thinkers in this online world. They are using many of the same ideas that OrchestraX revolutionized nearly two decades ago. I find this encouraging and despite the challenges and conflicts caused by the covid closures, we are seeing how young people are the impetus for change and opportunity in the world.
Kathy: How do events such as these advance or integrate classical music into more people’s lives?
Maestro: What is clear is that classical music is already in more people’s lives. There are more people listening to orchestra, opera, and contemporary music than at any time in history, thanks to the internet and YouTube in particular. It is quite astonishing that in the span of a few seconds, one can compare Toscanini and Thielemann.
And while entrepreneurial ideas are essential, the real question comes down, as always, to money. Not only how much it costs, but how much one can make to earn a living. This is the challenge of our times. How to translate all these good ideas into actions and be accountable on a fiduciary level. Opera still remains the most expensive art form — and it is not cheap to buy a good violin or the multitude of scores for a young conductor. For the moment, most musicians will not make a real living. But that can change — not by selling out or reducing repertoire, but by the simple act of singing and the sharing of sounds. It’s not just an idealistic view. It is at the core of what we do as musicians, connecting people from within. Hearts and minds.
Maybe we will see music for what it truly is: the image in which all were created. The manifestation of which brings an authentic meaning. It’s the act of creating something from out of the ether. That journey is the creative act, the sensorial act, the holy act that might inspire a few more to open their ears (and eyes and nose and mouth and heart…)
This article originally appeared on medium in the publication Classical Culture—Classical Music in a World of Popular Culture.