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Hearing Wine, Tasting Music

Conductor crosses the lines thanks to a childhood accident
Photo by: Stefano Bottesi
Composer John Axelrod hears disharmony when he tastes a wine that's out of balance.

Posted: Nov 21, 2012 11:00am ET

John Axelrod tastes music and hears food and wine. As a result, he has a particular fascination for the links between music and gastronomy. He claims to be the only conductor who also ran a wine business. In the late 1990s he ran the Robert Mondavi wine center at Disneyland in Anaheim for three years. It was Mondavi's wife, Margrit Biever, who encouraged the young Axelrod, who has studied privately with Leonard Bernstein, to "take the leap of faith," as he put it, and pursue a career in music.

Today he leads the Orchestra National des Pays de la Loire in Angers, France, the Verdi Orchestra in Milan, Italy, and guest conducts throughout Europe. We chatted via Skype recently after he led a performance in Naples of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5.

Axelrod explained that he has a form of synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Notable artists in history have had this. The composers Alexander Scriabin and Olivier Messaien and the painters Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee were born with a crosslink involving color and sound. For Axelrod it is taste and sound, and it developed after he got mercury poisoning as a child. "The treatment created a bridge between taste and my hearing," he said.

When he was 10 years old his parents took him out for pizza, and offered him his first taste of wine. "It sounded marvelous," he said. "It was a Chianti. It started my love affair with Italian food and wine."

For Axelrod, wines that are out of balance taste discordant to him, like music in which the harmonies clash. Likewise, music that doesn't come together properly is literally sour or bitter to him.

"Very often a sound will have a salty taste or a metallic taste," he noted. "So if I taste a sweet wine like Sauternes or a sweet recioto, the sugar has an incredible harmony to it."

In Italy he became fascinated with an Amarone by Gino Fasoli called Alteo. I asked him how the wine sounded. "It has a beautiful harmony, with neighboring cadenzas, like in the circle of fifths. Harmonies that are neighboring get along very well. There's not much dissonance."

He said he often tastes dissonance in red Bordeaux, which he ascribed to the different grapes blended together to make the wines, sometimes as many as five different varieties. "I love the purity of the Merlot in a Pomerol, though," he said.

This sensitivity has been useful to him as a conductor. "Just as I would always hear the structure, the balance, the equilibrium, the consonance in wine, I would be able to tell if the music was dissonant, out of balance and unstructured. If an orchestra plays badly, I can taste it. The music can even feel too heavy in tannins or acid. I can't very well say to an orchestra, ‘More oregano please.' So I have to translate it in my mind into ‘Più leggiero,' or ‘Give me more staccato.'"

Before he took a detour into the wine business, Axelrod scouted rock'n'roll talent for record companies. At BMG he helped to launch the careers of Tori Amos and Marc Cohn and discovered the Smashing Pumpkins one night in the cellar of a Chicago club. Even today, he encourages classical and popular musicians to cross the lines, recently conducting performances of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue featuring both the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and the classical star Lang Lang.

He has also introduced the idea of linking taste and sound to audiences in a concert series he started called Joy of Wine and Music. "I paired a California Zinfandel with [Aaron] Copland's Clarinet Concerto," he said. Audiences like the jazzy style of the music with the exuberant flavors of the wine. He also has presented French wines with French music, German wines with German music.

He writes a blog on food-and-wine matching. A recent entry explored connections between sweet wines, such as Sauternes and late-harvest Gewürztraminer, and Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral." Ultimately, his conclusion had nothing to do with individual taste complexities, but something anyone can see or taste or hear: "Like the Pastoral itself, the sweet wine also evokes the sublime."

Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  November 21, 2012 4:43pm ET
"Music that doesn't come together properly is literally sour or bitter to him." The operative word here is "properly." Apparently that means if it isn't proper to him he gets a sour or bitter taste. What is his reaction to Arnold Schoenberg's music or that of Archie Shepp, to name just two? Not being a synesthete, there is a lot of music that I find irritating enough that I don't want to listen to and would prefer to leave the room or turn it off. From what you describe as his musical tastes, we seem to have a lot in common. For me, the opening notes of Rhapsody in Blue on the clarinet just draws me in and harkens back to memories of first hearing it when I was a child, such as Proust's madeleine evoking memories of the past. Any sensual experience, whether it be music, wine or food will set off neuronal responses over which we have no control. And isn't that wonderful?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 21, 2012 5:07pm ET
Richard, I didn't ask him if he experienced a difference between intentionally dissonant music and badly played music. That would be for a longer conversation, I expect.

But I agree that it's wonderful that what we hear and what we taste can trigger long-forgotten memories.

(By the way, Schoenberg wrote some lush, highly Romantic music before he detoured into the atonal. Verklärte Nacht sounds positively erotic, although the composer was going for something a bit more noble.)

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