It’s Sunday, October 8, 2017, and we are quietly making our way inside the modern yet cozy auditorium of Deal, NJ’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center where we’ve been invited to experience a rehearsal for today’s Concert of a Lifetime celebrating the legacy of Dr. Herbert Axelrod.
Axelrod’s success as a publisher fueled his philanthropy for classical music, the arts, and science education. An amateur violinist and an avid lover of classical music, Axelrod amassed a significant collection of antique string instruments by Stradivari and others. He loaned violins to promising artists — including a young Joshua Bell — to help jumpstart their careers.
Herbert Axelrod and his wife, Evelyn, lived in Deal, NJ for many years. Their generous contributions to the local Jewish Community Center led to the building of the award-winning Axelrod Performing Arts Center, a top-notch regional theater located in central New Jersey near the Jersey Shore.
Axelrod passed away on May 15, 2017 in Zurich, Switzerland. To honor him, the theater that bears his named presented The Concert of a Lifetime — a program featuring a line-up of musical luminaries including the world-famous violinist whom Axelrod helped as a budding musician — Joshua Bell.
As we watch a number of performers rehearse for this afternoon’s stellar musical program, we are not only struck by their consummate professionalism, but by the expertise of the various staff members associated with the Axelrod PAC led by Jess Levy, CEO of Axelrod PAC, and Andrew Deprisco, the venue’s Artistic Director.
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First to rehearse is the magnificent soprano Kelly Cae Hogan, accompanied by William Glazier on the piano. As Hogan runs through the arias she will perform later today, she stops to discuss tempos, all the while sounding like the world-class vocalist she is.
Next up is Alessio Bax, Joshua Bell’s pianist, who rehearses sections of his piano accompaniment. His concentration and expression are evident as he skillfully and beautifully plays.
The Smithsonian Axelrod Quartet — Catherine Manson and Marilyn McDonald on violin, James Stern on viola, and Kenneth Slowik on cello — rehearse next. As they play, they stop every now and then to discuss specifics of the music to perfect their performance.
When one member of the Axelrod Quartet asks a staff member how well the concert has sold, he is told the group will be playing to a packed house. At this point, he asks how such a large audience will affect the sound in the now-empty room, to which the staff member jokingly replies, “We’ll have to see — we’ve never had a classical concert sell out before!”
And as if right on cue, one of the main reasons today’s performance is such a highly-anticipated event — violinist Joshua Bell — enters the auditorium, dressed in a polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers, carrying his violin.
As the crew moves equipment for tonight’s performance to various precise locations on the stage, Mr. Bell carefully takes out his instrument and begins to rehearse.
Moving as he plays, the music appears to flow from him straight through his violin. As he dazzles us with his musical mastery, his pianist, Alessio Bax, accompanies Mr. Bell’s playing with proficiency and finesse.
As these two performers communicate through music, they connect in a way that only true musicians can do. Demonstrating teamwork in its purest form, they mutually interpret the music brilliantly.
Once they’re finished rehearsing, Bell greets an old colleague, violinist Pamela Frank. As budding musicians, both were encouraged by Dr. Axelrod, and their friendship is evident as they discuss — and ultimately rehearse — the piece they will perform later in the concert.
After the violinists take leave of the stage, jazz vocalist Gabrielle Stravelli rehearses. Expertly accompanied by Felix Truex on the piano, Stravelli changes the mood as she runs through two lovely jazz standards by Gershwin.
Smiling as she sings, it is clear that Gabrielle enjoys performing these classic compositions of Gershwin, all the while taking them to a new level of sophistication and interpretation.
We learn that, as a youngster, Stravelli’s first job was as an employee at Dr. Herbert Axelrod’s publishing company, TFH Publications, which published books on such varied topics as tropical fish and classical composers.
According to Stravelli, one important lesson she learned from Dr. Axelrod is “you change the world in a beautiful way when you support the arts.”
As a result, although she currently performs both nationally and internationally as a vocalist and actress, she is proud to be at the Axelrod PAC today to pay tribute to Dr. Axelrod and his legacy.
Once the rehearsal is completed, the auditorium doors are opened, and the large assembly of music lovers in the Axelrod lobby makes its way into the concert hall to find their seats for this afternoon’s performance.
The lights dim and Axelrod PAC CEO Jess Levy welcomes the audience. Sharing anecdotes demonstrating the generosity of Dr. Herbert Axelrod and talking about his personal relationship with Dr. Axelrod, Levy concludes his remarks with a quote from his late friend: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
Dr. Judy Topilow — the best friend of Herbert Axelrod’s wife, Evelyn — takes the podium to explain to the audience that Mrs. Axelrod will be unable to attend tonight’s musical tribute. As a result, the performance is being videotaped and will be sent to her so she can view it at her home in Switzerland.
Sharing stories of her deep friendship with Dr. and Mrs. Axelrod, Topilow reveals how Evelyn Axelrod once told her, ‘Stick with me and you’ll be wearing pearls,” before pointing out her jewelry to the audience exclaiming, “and here I am wearing my best!”
The musicians of the Smithsonian Axelrod Quartet take their places on the stage. Before they begin to play, however, the audience soon learns that they will be performing on four priceless musical instruments which were donated to Washington DC’s Smithsonian Institution by Dr. Herbert Axelrod.
The audience learns that wherever these four musicians travel, they must always keep their instruments with them, despite the fact that the valuable items are typically accompanied by four security guards!
That said, a story is told about a time when the members of the Quartet were scheduled to play a concert in the Far East and were invited to go out to dinner with Dr. Axelrod. Naturally, all the musicians took their instruments to the restaurant with them. Once there, however, Dr. Axelrod demonstrated his generosity by offering a ten-year-old child an opportunity to play one of the priceless stringed instruments in the middle of the restaurant simply because he had heard the youngster’s parents reveal that their child played the cello!
Performing a piece which, we learn, was one of Dr. Axelrod’s favorites “because he could play the second violin part,” the Smithsonian Quartet commences their performance with their rendition of Mozart’s “Quartet in C Major.”
The beautiful sound of these rare instruments fills the auditorium, the interplay between the musicians and these magnificent instruments creating a unique opportunity for music lovers at the New Jersey Shore to experience an extraordinary presentation. As a result, they respond with avid applause!
Grammy Award-winning cellist Peter Wiley is the next artist to take the stage. Accompanied by Stephen Prutsman on piano, Wiley opens by playing J. S. Bach’s “Pastorale” from Pastorale in F major for Organ. Performing the flowing line of the piece’s lovely melody, Wiley’s music proceeds like one continuous ribbon of sound.
Moving on to Mendelssohn’s “Song without Words,” Wiley’s cello sings. There are clearly no words needed to express the emotion of this lovely piece, the composition showcasing both the range and expressivity of this master musician.
Following lively applause, award-winning international concert pianist Julia Zilberquist takes the stage.
According to Zilberquist, her father enjoyed a 43-year-long friendship with Herbert Axelrod which began in Russia and continued when Zilberquist and her family emigrated to the United States in 1989. Upon arriving in America, the family moved to the Jersey Shore, where Dr. and Mrs. Axelrod encouraged Julia to practice on their own personal grand piano.
Zilberquist reflects on Dr. Axelrod’s continued generosity when she reveals, “He also bought me my first upright piano when I needed it!”
Dedicating her performance to Dr. Axelrod, Zilberquist announces, “I will be playing pieces by two Russian composers this afternoon because Herbert loved Russian music and I know he will hear it!”
Opening with Rachmaninoff’s “Elegie,” Zilberquist plays with emotion.
Crossing her hands, she performs this piece with dexterity and feeling.
She follows up with one of the highlight performances of the afternoon. On her world-class rendition of Slonimsky’s “Intermezzo in Memory of Brahms” — a jazz-like piece filled with trills and runs — Zilberquist’s fingers run over the keys in rapid succession, all to the delight of the Axelrod crowd.
The audience cheers for her powerful performance!
Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan — a singer who started her career in Asbury Park, NJ, but who now sings with the Metropolitan Opera in New York — is accompanied by William Glazier on the piano. Performing two numbers by Puccini, Hogan opens with “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly.
At times during the piece, Hogan’s voice soars. At other times, she coyly acts out the aria, telling the story with her facial expressions and hand movements, in addition to her incredible vocal talent.
Continuing with “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, Hogan’s rich soprano fills the auditorium as she spins a story with her graceful and passionate voice — all the while expertly accompanied by Glazier on the piano.
Following tremendous applause, violinist Daniel Heifetz takes the stage. Although he was scheduled to play John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List today, Heifetz explains that he will be unable to perform due to an accident in which he hurt his wrist.
Instead, he tells the crowd about his relationship with Dr. Axelrod — a man with whom he not only shared an interest in music, but also in tropical fish and fine cigars! Heifetz also promises to return to the Axelrod PAC once he has healed so he can play for all of the classical music lovers here at the Jersey Shore.
Next, Gabrielle Stravelli wows the audience with her performance of Gershwin’s “Our Love is Here to Stay.” Crooning the song in her effortless jazz style, she lovingly communicates the timeless genius of Gershwin.
Deftly accompanied by Felix Truex on the piano, Stravelli follows with a lovely rendition of Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Smiling as she sings, her rich tone helps her to exquisitely interpret this classic tune, allowing the audience to not only hear the melody and lyrics of this classic number, but to truly feel the emotion of the song.
During a brief intermission, we chat with several audience members who comment on The Concert of a Lifetime thus far.
States Alice of Long Branch, “Gabrielle Stravelli is a great singer — one who is above the rest,” before going to declare, “I hope she comes back to the Axelrod!”
We also chat with Rosalie of Interlaken who tells us a bit about Dr. Herbert Axelrod.
Revealing, “He was a wonderful and very generous man. He was loved by so many people,” Rosalie goes on to add, “I had the pleasure of meeting him, and I personally know how he helped people.”
A former English teacher who grew up in Queens, NY, who listened to classical music every Sunday as a youngster, Rosalie tells us she is here this Sunday to “enjoy the classical music and to honor Dr. Axelrod.”
When we ask her about the quality of the music she’s hearing this afternoon, Rosalie smiles and exclaims, “It is magnificent!”
The lights dim and audience members once again take their seats as Act II begins with Bach’s “Sonata #3 for Violin and Piano in E,” performed by violinist Pamela Frank and pianist Stephen Prutsman.
As she plays the “Allegro,” Frank’s violin lilts along with Prutsman’s piano. At times, the two instruments run alongside one another — at other times, they run after one another.
After the duo expertly handles the rigors of this complex piece, Frank tells a story about a time during her youth when she arrived at a venue to perform, but the violin she was assured she would be able to play never arrived.
According to Frank, it was at that time she met Dr. Axelrod who gave her the very same violin she still plays today. As a result, she’s always called the Axelrods her “fairy godparents” and, in return, they’ve always called her “the kid.”
Frank introduces the one-and-only Joshua Bell, who takes the stage — now dressed in black shirt, black pants, and black shoes — along with pianist Alessio Bax.
Opening with Grieg’s Sonata #3, Bell and Bax create a storm of music between the piano and violin. Sweetly singing high notes soar and float like spun sugar in the air — magical sounds played with an intensity and feeling that is unsurpassed.
Moving on to Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebesleid,” Bell’s facial expression only partially expresses the emotion and feeling that comes forth from his violin.
Although it has often been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, it can never express the soul one feels when a musical prodigy like Joshua Bell performs live.
As his fingers glide over the fingerboard, they seem to barely touch the strings, creating a cascade of music that alternately floats and runs above the piano.
After enormous applause, for his final piece, Bell performs Pablo de Saransate’s “Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs).”
Here, Bell’s performance is inspirational, demonstrating what only one of the world’s most gifted musicians can do — restore one’s faith in the human condition.
The audience responds with animated cheers and applause!
Taking a few moments to chat with the audience about his personal relationship with Dr. Axelrod, Bell talks about driving “home to Indiana by way of Deal, NJ” on his way home from summer camp in New York State as a youngster so that he and his family could meet “someone named Axelrod.”
Spending time at the Axelrod home, Bell reveals how Dr. Axelrod gave him books about “every musician who ever lived” and even gave his sister “books on fish,” before also acknowledging that, “somehow, there was even a half-chicken for us to bring home, too!”
Always thankful for the Axelrods’ generosity, Josh says that once he decided to become a professional musician, the Axelrods continued to help him by giving him “violins and encouragement throughout the years.”
To close the program, the two longtime friends — Joshua Bell and Pamela Frank — perform a Shostakovich piece for two violins, creating a duet of magic which fills the hearts of all present at this very special Concert of a Lifetime, making it a memorable experience which will not soon be forgotten by anyone in attendance.
Following a standing ovation, we take a moment to chat with several audience members who share their opinions of this extraordinary afternoon of music.
Gloria from Nanuet NY calls the program, “Fabulous,” explaining, “It had a little bit of everything — opera, jazz, and classical music,” admitting, “Kelly Cae Hogan’s performance of Madama Butterfly made me cry!”
Esther from Marlboro refers to the concert as “Spectacular!” Adding, “I didn’t expect all of this,” Esther goes on reveal, “I love the violin, and when you see it played the way it was today, it was breathtaking. To see the music coming so naturally from inside of these talented performers gave me the chills!”
Judy from Long Branch agrees, commenting, “The musicians on-stage today are truly gracious performers,” before adding, “and I really admire Joshua Bell and his perseverance to learn to perform like that.”
Sylvia from Long Branch admits, “I’m a pop music and country-western music fan who is now converted to a violin lover after hearing Joshua Bell! This was the most wonderful concert — I hung on to Joshua Bell’s every note!”
Sandy from Long Branch echoes those thoughts revealing, “Joshua Bell made his violin speak and, in doing so, he made me cry.”
Lastly, John from Nanuet NY, remarks, “I loved this concert — it was wonderful — and hearing Joshua Bell was such a treat.”
Going on to add, “And it was wonderful to see so many performers with a connection to Herbert and Evelyn Axelrod,” John explains, “I knew Herbert Axelrod. Herbert was a generous man,” before concluding, “And just look at how he was able to touch all of these musicians through his generosity!”
For more on Joshua Bell, please go to joshuabell.com. To learn more about Pamela Frank, see opus3artists.com/pamela-frank. For information on Gabrielle Stravelli, click on gabriellestravelli.com To find out more about Kelly Cae Hogan, please go to kellycaehogan.com. To learn more about Julia Zilberquit, click on juliazilberquit.com For more on Peter Wiley, go to pcmsconcerts.org/peter-wiley. To learn more about The Smithsonian Axelrod Quartet, see smithsonianchambermusic.org/axelrod-string-quartet. Lastly, for information on upcoming performances at Axelrod PAC — including Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara on October 28, Jekyll and Hyde starring Remember Jones from November 4 through November 19, and The American Repertory Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker on December 22 and 23, — please click on axelrodartscenter.com.Photos by Love Imagery
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