The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: John DeMain’s journey from opera conductor to orchestra conductor now seems complete – and wows me | November 24, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

When maestro John DeMain took over the reins of the Madison Symphony Orchestra 16 seasons ago – can it really be that long? – he was already a highly accomplished musician and widely respected conductor with world premieres, TV and radio appearances, world-class galas and a Grammy to his credit.

Madison was lucky to lure him and smart to snatch him up.

But there is no denying that DeMain came here primarily as an opera conductor.

Now if he should leave here – and I, for one, hopes that event is not soon on the horizon — he will leave as an orchestra conductor.

Not that he has lost his touch as a first-rate opera conductor. Anyone who heard his performances of Bizet’s “Carmen” with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera earlier this month can attest to that.

But if you heard the MSO’s most recent concert this past weekend, and particularly the high-octane performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 – you can also attest to the fact that DeMain has grown. And I mean grown impressively.

DeMain arrived in Madison with the opera repertoire – from the big staples (Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly”) and the less frequently played classics “(many Verdi operas) to some contemporary works (Leonard Bernstein and John Adams) – comfortably under his belt.

That background prepared him for a lot, and especially for accompanying not just vocalists but also instrumentalists. (His talent to partner with others was also in ample evidence this past weekend when DeMain accompanied cellist Ralph Kirshbaum (right) in moving performances of Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo,” not an easy piece to hold together, and Dvorak’s “Silent Woods.”)

And not for nothing did the once-pianist study conducting under Leonard Bernstein.

But the purely orchestral works bore out the same impression I had when DeMain conducted Mahler, Beethoven and Brahms symphonies and concertos in recent years. (Tellingly, Brahms wrote choral works, but no operas.)

First, he raised the curtain with Respighi’s brightly colorful tone poem “The Fountains of Rome” and it felt like listening to a painting – as it should.

Then came the Tchaikovsky Fifth—one of that popular composer’s most popular works.

I won’t go through all the many fine points I heard.

Suffice it to say that with such a fetching interpretation, you do not mind Tchaikovsky’s overworked compositional technique of penning a great theme – the composer clearly understood the importance of a wonderful melody to his listeners – and then throwing it around to every section in every possible permutation.

But under DeMain’s at once intelligent and visceral direction – with his fine sense of balance and shading as well of tempo changes — the symphony always sounded exciting, never boring or tedious or repetitious. Strings, brass, winds, percussion – it was hard to find a weakness.

And when they arrived at the finale, the march tempo exploded as it picked up and DeMain pushed the orchestra to full throttle, giving the piece all the juice he could muster. You found no “Song of the Volga Boatmen” trudging along in this reading. What began as a soulful lament ended up transformed into a victory march full of energy and triumph.

Bluntly put and shortly stated, I think John DeMain is taking more risks these days and has a sharper edge now than when he came. He knows the repertoire better and, more importantly, what he wants to do with that repertoire. DeMain never seemed a timid interpreter, but one senses a newfound and powerful confidence on his part.

That is no small achievement to arrive at in your 60s. It took hard work and a willingness to learn over time and through experience. So DeMain is to be praised for openness to growth and his desire to avoid cruise control at precisely the age when so many other people begin to rely on it.

Judging by the immediate and prolonged standing ovation and bravos DeMain and the MSO elicited in the Tchaikovsky, and judging also by the comments I heard from other audience members as I left Overture Hall, I am not alone in my opinion in seeing this concert as an exciting event that makes great classical music sound vital and necessary rather than luxurious or optional. He makes the music sounds as great as it is.

I have not surveyed orchestra players or other listeners, but I would like to hear from them both.

I would like to know that my ears and my memory are not deceiving when I say that there has never been a better time to take in the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

It’s not by chance or coincidence, one suspects, that the MSO scored its most subscribed concert and best single tickets sales (for a total attendance around 5,000) so far this season with the Tchaikovsky concert, according to MSO marketing director Ann Miller.

So if you agree or disagree, or have something to add, please leave a comment.

If there are enough, I will make them a separate blog posting.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

1 Comment »

  1. My recollection is that one of Maestro DeMain’s stated goals upon taking on the Madison gig, after a long, successful and distinguished run at Houston Grand Opera, was to re-engage with symphonic repertoire. I totally concur – he has grown into a splendid orchestral conductor (and he was no slouch to begin with).

    Regarding his work with soloists, you write,
    “That (opera) background prepared him for a lot, and especially for accompanying not just vocalists but also instrumentalists.”
    Any soloist is exposed and extremely vulnerable when onstage. As more than one singer who has worked with him has told me, “You know you are safe and in good hands with John on the podium.”

    Comment by Marius — November 24, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

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