By Jacob Stockinger
Madison and the rest of the world know John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) primarily as a symphony and opera conductor who is also the longtime music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera.
But this acclaimed conductor, who won a Grammy Award for his recording of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” and who conducted the world premiere of John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China” at the Houston Grand Opera, started his career as a promising pianist, as did many other conductors including Leonard Bernstein (with whom DeMain studied conducting), Sir Georg Solti, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim and Christoph Eschenbach. Aside from the pipe organ, the piano is generally considered to be the most orchestral of instruments — so it really comes as no surprise that so many conductors started out as pianists. (To be fair, still other well-known conductors began as string or wind players.)
DeMain will return to the piano this weekend when he splits accompanying duties with pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), the co-founder and co-director of the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. DeMain and Jeffrey Sykes will perform jointly in Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann,” Op. 23, and will take turns accompanying other performers in songs and romances for flute. (BDDS is also performing a second program of songs and chamber music by Ferdinand Ries, Ned Rorem, Frank Martin and Gabriel Faure.)
Performances are on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Playhouse (below top) and on Sunday evening, at 6:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater (below bottom) at the landmark and historic Frank Lloyd Wright compound Taliesin in Spring Green.
The rest of the “love triangle” program of music by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann (both below) and Johannes Brahms includes many songs by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann and Brahms; Robert Schumann’s Three Romances for flute and piano, Op. 94; Clara Wieck Schumann’s Three Romances for flute and piano Op. 22. For more information about the program, performers and tickets, visit http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org
DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear:
Most of us know you as a conductor, even though you have played continuo and conducted smaller operas from the keyboard for the Madison Opera. You started out as a pianist. Can you tell about your time as a pianist from starting lessons through competitions and Juilliard and the decision to go into conducting?
I started studying piano at the age of six. I was a pretty good sight-reader and loved to accompany myself singing. When I was a senior in high school, I won the Youngstown Symphony Society’s piano competition, competing with college-level students.
After making my debut playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the symphony, I decided to audition for Juilliard. I was accepted and studied for six years with Adele Marcus (below, as a demanding young teacher and performer). I played chamber music with the concertmaster of the Juilliard orchestra, and I won a competition in New York for young artists.
Why did you want to change from being a pianist to being a conductor, especially an opera conductor? (What are the comparative pleasures and pains of each, the piano and conducting?)
Conducting sort of coexisted side by side with playing the piano. I was conducting the grade school band in fourth-grade when the teacher didn’t show up. It came to me naturally.
While at Juilliard I took some elective conducting courses with Jorge Mester (below). I earned my tuition for Juilliard by conducting musicals for big summer stock theaters in the summer.
After graduating from Juilliard, I continued to play chamber music in New York and played a few recitals. I always had a big love for the theater, opera and singing as well as the symphony orchestra.
Certain opportunities were presented to me in the field of conducting, starting with the Norwalk Connecticut Symphony, followed by a lengthy stint with opera for public television.
That, in turn, led to a summer studying conducting at Tanglewood, and to beginning my professional career at the New York City Opera as the second winner of the Julius Rudel award. (Below is a photo of Julius Rudel, the Austrian native who led the New York City Opera for many years and also guest conducted at the Met and elsewhere .) My duties included 35 hours a week of coaching and playing rehearsals. So the piano was always part of my professional life.
My next position was with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (below) as associate conductor. In addition to conducting the orchestra on tour and having my own subscription concerts, I was playing chamber music with members of the orchestra on our chamber music series.
How did the piano affect your conducting and what did you bring to conducting from the piano? And inversely, what does conducting now bring to your playing the piano?
Playing the piano is a great aid in learning orchestral scores. One can study both the melodic content of a work, but even more importantly the harmonic structure of the music.
Conducting makes me aware of pulse when I’m playing the piano. And, of course, there is the imagining the piano part as though it would be orchestrated, much the same way we imagine the human voice singing an orchestral melody.
I think the life of a pianist can be more isolated, considering the many hours of practicing that is required. While studying orchestral and operatic scores is also isolated and private, there are so many rehearsals with the cast or the orchestra that makes for a more social experience. That seems to suit me better.
I suppose the trite answer is we do something because we can. I love the big playground of opera and symphony, and wouldn’t trade it for the world. But making music at the piano with fellow musicians is such an important part of a complete musical life.
In the orchestra world, we like to say that all music is chamber music. Listening to each other and responding accordingly is a great part of great orchestral playing. One develops this playing chamber music. Playing one-on one with your fellow musicians where everyone is equal. I feel blessed that I can participate in all of this from time to time.
Do have any comment about Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann” for piano, four-hands, and other works you will be performing this weekend with Jeffrey Sykes for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society?
I certainly don’t play the piano publicly that frequently anymore, and I haven’t for years. But I thought this would be a rewarding experience, which is turning out to be just that. I have big respect for what Stephanie Jutt (who is principal flute with the Madison Symphony Orchestra) and Jeffrey Sykes (below) have created. And I love Jeffrey’s pianism.
The Brahms theme-and-variations (played by the Kontarsky brothers in a YouTube video at bottom) are rather extraordinary, and we are enjoying ourselves immense putting them together. They are harmonically quite daring at times, and of course deal in the finality of life as well. It should be an interesting concert.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Metropolitan Opera has announced the next season (2013-14) of “Live From the Met in HD” broadcasts, which are shown in cinemas around the world, including at the Eastgate (below) and Point cinemas in Madison.
It is an impressive lineup for the series that, according to The Met, gets transmitted via satellite to 1,900 theaters in 64 countries and has sold more than 12 million tickets since it began in 2006.
But nobody is saying why the season has been cut back from 12 to 10 after two years of expanding, if I recall correctly. Maybe the market can only bear so much. Or maybe it is the budget.
There will be one a month except for two in October and April.
Also, if I recall correctly, the whole program has been a great moneymaker for the Met. So I am not sure why the program was cut back. Maybe it just has to do with impressive new productions and only so much time to stage them in.
Also to look forward to is the return of conductor and Met artistic director James Levine (below top) after a hiatus of two years due to ill health. He will conduct Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” Verdi’s “Falstaff” and Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck.” Also, “Two Boys,” a new opera commissioned by the Met from composer Nico Muhly (below bottom), will be featured.
And there are a lot of other top-name singers and conductors who will be involved.
Here are the official announcements:
Here is a link to the series’ home website:
And here are some other stories about the regular Met season and the HD season that offer some analysis and other details:
And here is another, featuring world-famous opera (and food) expert Fred Plotkin (below), who writes the blog “Operavore” and is a 1978 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
By Jacob Stockinger
The timing of the announcement couldn’t have been better, given that today, Saturday, Oct. 13, marked the return of the “Live From the Met in HD” satellite broadcasts with Anna Netrebko in Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love.”
And this story needs no commentary from me except to say that classical music fans and opera fans all over the world will be overjoyed to hear that long-time Met conductor James Levine (seen below in a photo by Damon Winter for The New York Times), long plagued by major and serious health problems, will return to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera next season. Furthermore, the recuperating Levine is being extremely open and candid about overcoming his illnesses and health challenges, which he calls “miraculous.”
Special accommodations are being made to the Met’s for Levine, who usually conducts sitting down (below, in a 2111 photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times) but who must now get around in a motorized wheelchair. But you can read the stories below for those and other details.
Here is a link to a Page One story in The New York Times:
Here is a link to another story by the Associated Press:
You could even leave a Message for the Maestro in the COMMENT section of this blog.
By Jacob Stockinger
Attention Wagner fans: Get ready for Valhalla in your home!
The Ear has received word that Deutsche Grammophon will release an 8-DVD recording of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle next month. It will include a 1-DVD documentary plus a 2-DVD set of highlights – a very smart marketing move, says The Ear — as well as the complete set of four operas.
Say what you will about the Metropolitan Opera’s latest production of Wagner’s mammoth four-opera “Ring” cycle – that’s the production by Robert Lepage that was featured in the “Met Live in HD” broadcasts – it generated a great deal of interest and controversy and divided partisans sharply.
And that kind of publicity is priceless.
So the acclaimed and venerable label Decca has announced it will release DVDs of all the operas plus a documentary and a highlights compilation next month – just in time for the Oct. 13 start of the latest season of “The Met Live in HD,” which can be seen at:
Here is the official press release from Universal and Deutsche Grammophon:
“For Immediate Release
“New York, NY — Wagner’s “Ring” presents the ultimate challenge for any opera company, and the New York Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” unveiled between 2010 and 2012 and starring some of the greatest Wagnerian singers of today, is among the most ambitious “Ring” stagings ever mounted.
“The Met’s production, directed by legendary theatre visionary Robert Lepage, uses a 90,000 lb. “tectonic” set (below) -– an infinitely mobile, writhing, rotating raft of 24 individually pivoting aluminium planks that came to be nicknamed “The Machine” – in a dazzlingly cinematic staging that harnesses the latest interactive and 3D video technology to realize many previously “unstageable” aspects of Wagner’s epic drama.
“It is at once a state-of-the-art production for the 21st century and a deeply traditional Ring. In Lepage’s words, “it’s the movie that Wagner wanted to make before movies existed.” For the Boston Globe, it’s “a high-tech Ring with a traditional heart”. In the London Telegraph’s view, it’s “a triumph, at once subtle and spectacular, intimate and epic.”
“Already seen by over a million people in the theater and at cinemas around the globe, the Met Ring was filmed live in high-definition and is now being released on both DVD and Blu-ray to launch Deutsche Grammophon’s celebration of the composer’s bicentenary year in 2013.
With Bryn Terfel, widely acknowledged as one of the finest bass-baritones of our age, performing his first complete cycles as the embattled god Wotan and American soprano Deborah Voigt (below) making her role debut as his disobedient warrior-daughter Brünnhilde.
Other international stars include Jonas Kaufmann (below top) and Eva-Maria Westbroek as the incestuous Siegmund and Sieglinde, and last-minute stand-in Jay Hunter Morris (below bottom) – a thrilling new tenor from Paris, Texas – saving the day as the fearless but ill-fated hero Siegfried. The New York Times declared the cast “as strong a lineup of vocal artists for a Wagner opera as I have heard in years.”
Acclaim was equally enthusiastic for the cycle’s two conductors: James Levine, the Met’s longstanding Music Director, who has conducted 21 complete Ring cycles at the Met; and Fabio Luisi (below), the Met’s Italian-born Principal Conductor, who took over conducting the second half of the cycle after illness caused Levine to withdraw.
“Levine drew exciting, wondrously natural playing from the great Met orchestra”, wrote the New York Times, while “Luisi brings out the score’s three-dimensional detail and animal heat,” wrote New York Magazine.
Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met since 2006, says: “Nothing defines an opera house more than its new productions, and there’s no new production that is more significant than a new “Ring” cycle. That is why I invited Robert Lepage, one of theatre’s great visionaries, to create our new cycle.”
Mark Wilkinson, President of Deutsche Grammophon, says: “We are thrilled to be partnering with the Met to help take Wagner’s spectacular, breathtaking music, boldly realized here by Robert Lepage, to as wide an audience as possible. Both collectors and newcomers to Wagner’s extraordinary world will find it at once spectacular, visually spell-binding and deeply thought-provoking.”
To complement the complete Ring cycle on both DVD and Blu-ray, Deutsche Grammophon is releasing two related titles: “Twilight of the Gods,” a 2-CD compilation of audio highlights from the Met’s “Ring” – featuring all the major stars of the production and such famous extracts as “The Ride of the Valkyries,” “Wotan’s Farewell,” the “Magic Fire Music,” “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” and the concluding “Immolation Scene”; and “Wagner’s Dream,” a frank and revealing documentary about the five-year making of the Met’s new Ring that has already been acclaimed as “simply the best documentary about the Met ever made” (Film Journal), “a must-see for any creative soul” (Cinespect) and “destined to be one of the classic documentaries about opera” (Philadelphia Inquirer).
Here are details:
“Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen”
Das Rheingold · Die Walküre · Siegfried · Götterdämmerung & Wagner’s Dream The making of the Ring
Starring in alphabetical order: Patricia Bardon, Stephanie Blythe, Richard Croft, Mojca Erdmann, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Jonas Kaufmann, Hans-Peter König, Waltraud Meier, Jay Hunter Morris, Eric Owens, Iain Peterson, Franz-Josef Selig,· Gerhard Siegel, Bryn Terfel, Deborah Voigt, Eva-Maria Westbroek plus The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, all under conductors James Levine and Fabio Luisi and directed by Robert Lepage
8 DVDs 00440 073 4770 5 BD 00440 073 4771
U.S. Release September 11, 2012
“Twilight of the Gods”
Wagner: Highlights from “Der Ring des Nibelungen”
Stephanie Blythe, Jonas Kaufmann, Jay Hunter Morris, Eric Owens, Bryn Terfel, Deborah Voigt, Eva-Maria Westbroek and The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus under James Levine and Fabio Luisi.
2 CD 00289 479 0638
U.S. September 11, 2012
The making of the “Ring”
Featuring Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Jay Hunter Morris, Peter Gelb, James Levine, Fabio Luisi and the Metropolitan Opera
Directed by Susan Froemke
DVD 00440 073 4840
U.S. Release September 12, 2012
By Jacob Stockinger
Unfortunately, this performance will be conducted by Fabio Luisi rather than the legendary James Levine, who started the mammoth Wagner project. But so far, Luisi (below) has shown himself to be very capable.
At 11 a.m. at the Point and Eastgate cinemas in Madison, the Metropolitan Opera’s “The Met Live in HD” series will present “Gotterdammerung” (The Twilight of the Gods), the last in Richard Wagner’s ambitious “Ring” cycle.
Tickets are $24, $22 for seniors. The production, which stars Deborah Voigt (below with Morris), Bryn Terfel and Jay Hunter Morris as well as “The Machine” set used by Cirque du Soleil Robert Lepage, lasts six hours.
Even many of those who can’t attend the broadcast will be interested in the production. So I am offering some background, including reviews.
Here is a link to a video preview and other links to downloadable program notes and other information.
One of the most interesting aspects of the new production is the gap that exists between praise for the singers and performers versus criticism of Carl Fillion’s intricate, weighty (45 tons) and hi-tech set dubbed “The Machine” (below) that even required remodeling of the Met’s enormous stage.
I actually find the set quite intriguing and atmospheric. But you can make up your own mind.
And if you miss this live broadcast, I expect that within a year, the complete Ring will be available as DVDs for home viewing of big TV screens.
That’s not the same, to be sue, as the original, but it is not a bad compromise and certainly better than nothing.
Here is the New York Times’ review by its senior critic Anthony Tommasini (below), who will be in Madison March 22-24 to give free lectures as part of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet centennial:
And here is a review from – what else? — The Classical Review website, where you can check out other music and opera reviews:
Here is a review from New York City’s famed classical radio station WQXR:
And here is a musical excerpt to attract you:
By Jacob Stockinger
To many Madison-area residents and local classical music fans, John Harbison may be best known as the co-director of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival each summer during which he gives excellent talks, plays jazz and serves as a violist.
Yet John Harbison (below) is far better known throughout the rest of the world as a composer—and a very fine, respected and yes, frequently performed, composer. Many people forget that he has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and that he remains a favorite of Metropolitan Opera maestro James Levine, who commissioned Harbison’s opera “The Great Gatsby” to kick off the millennium in 2000.
He continues to teach at MIT and concertizes, especially with the music of Bach, but Harbison is busier than ever with composing new commissions.
This last week saw the world premiere of his Symphony No. 6 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which, under Levine’s direction, started last season to hold a complete retrospective of Harbison’s symphonies.
For health reasons, Levine has left the Boston post, as well as the Met post for next season. But the reviews for the performance under conductor David Zinman and with mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy, are in and they are by and large very positive and agree that Harbison is not a composer to rest on his laurels or repeat himself.
Some critics even called the work, which used both an orchestra and a mezzo-soprano, a “masterpiece” and described it as “powerful.” Below is John Harbison coaching during a rehearsal.
You can read some of the reviews for yourself:
Here is also a good set-up or background piece with Harbison talking about his own new symphony (below he takes a bow with the conductor and singer who performed the world premiere of his Symphony No. 6):
And the world premiere for John Harbison aren’t over by any means. On Saturday, April 21, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, in a FREE and PUBLIC concert, Habison’s 10-movement String Quartet No. 5 will receive its world premiere from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer). The Pro Arte Quartet commissioned the work to celebrate its centennial this season.
For details of that FREE and public performance and other centennial events, visit: www.proartequartet.org