The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra opens 85th season this weekend with Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Bartok. Conductor John De Main talks to The Ear | October 12, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra will open its 85th season.

The program — more than worthy competition for the Ohio State-UW football game — includes Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Van Cliburn Competition gold medal winner Olga Kern (below); Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra”; and Brahms’ “Academic Festival” Overture.

Concerts are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $13.50-$75.50.

For more information, call the Overture Center box office (608) 258-4141 or visit:

MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) took time out from his rehearsals and preparation to answer an e-mail Q&A for The Ear:

As of the opening of the MSO’s 85th season – and your 17th, no? — what is the shape of the MSO? How does it stand in terms of subscriptions and ticket sales? Financially and artistically, how has it weathered the recession?

As we open the 2010-11 season, the MSO finds itself in a healthy situation both financially and artistically. Last season, despite projections to the contrary, ended in the black with a small surplus, and we didn’t have to touch our reserve fund, pretty incredible, considering the times.

The orchestra is in great shape artistically, as we embark on a concertmaster search, having defined three outstanding candidates, who will each lead two subscription concerts over the season. They will also play an extensive solo audition for the search committee. I continue to be thrilled at the quality of new players admitted to the orchestra as vacancies or leaves of absence occur. This season is no exception.

We continue to have strong subscription renewals, but the recession caused some defection in this area, so our base to renew from is a bit smaller. So we are making a big push to develop more first time subscribers, and I feel this season is and ideal one for people to try out the symphony for the first time, or consider returning to the fold as subscribers.

The overall numbers, however, continue to be incredible when you think of Madison’s size and compare it to other like cities. Our strategy during this recession has been to produce one less subscription concert, (going back to eight instead of nine) and produce these concerts at the same level of quality as we have in the past. i.e. no stinting on the quality of the guest soloist, size of the orchestra, or choice of repertoire.

Indeed, if all goes well, it is our top priority to restore the ninth concert even as early as next season. Our donors have been unbelievably generous to the organization during these difficult times, and we are indeed proud and grateful to know them, and what they continue to do for us.

The public generally doesn’t respond well to contemporary or modern music. But Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” was almost an instant classic. Why do you think that is?

The “Concerto for Orchestra” by Bartok (below) certainly belongs to the conservative school of contemporary music, considering what also was being written during the same period in the 1940’s. It is intensely melodic, and vitally rhythmic, in very recognizable ways.

The piece draws on the folk ideas of Bartok’s native Hungary, filled with danceable rhythms in its second and wild last movement, and filled with wondrous color and harmonic surprises in the other movements as well. It is also essentially a tonal work embracing dissonance in an interesting and non-dominating fashion.

How good is Rachmaninoff (below) as serious or art music? Why do you think the public likes him, and especially his Second Piano Concerto, so much?

When you look at the entire body of Rachmaninoff’s compositional contribution, you realize he had his own voice, was a phenomenal pianist, and wrote, as composers should and must write, for the public’s benefit and gratification.

The Second Piano Concerto is one of the works, like Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” that is just perfect. It is concise, well made, beautifully melodic, and thrillingly dramatic, with gripping harmonic tension that makes the audience swoon.

Of course it’s serious music. It also happens to be immensely popular with the public because its ideas are so readily communicated. I love emotion in music, and Rachmaninoff provides it in spades.

I understand that you are going to be making quite a number of guest appearances this season. Can you tell us what they are and something about them?

I just returned from Portland Opera conducting a double bill of “Pagliacci”/“Carmina Burana,” a wonderful production that I brought to Opera Pacific TWICE during the good times.

Next summer I’m going to Seattle Opera, and in the next few years, I’m returning to Chicago Lyric, Glimmerglass Festival, Washington National Opera, and the San Francisco Opera. Since they haven’t announced their seasons yet, it is inappropriate for me to name the productions at this time.

What should we know about the Brahms “Academic Festival” Overture? You have programmed a lot of Brahms in recent years. It seems you have an affinity for his work. Why?

As a pianist, I adored the work of Brahms (below). Talk about a unique sound, and the way he deals with thirds, and spreads the voice leading out. I also like the great expression to be found in the music, but within stricter formal constraints, than many of his peers, so the music has an incredible dignity to it, as it explores the full range of human emotions.

The Academic Festival Overture is such an ebullient work, one of great joy and great craft as Brahms intermingles real songs from student life into this wonderful overture. Again, I might state that as a pianist the core of the repertoire that one studies is German, so if I have a special affinity for German composers, that is probably the reason, despite my 100% Italian heritage.

Do you have any special plans for the MSO in coming years?

As I said before, we want to get that ninth subscription concert back on the boards, and then we’ll look at some new initiatives.

I would like to see members of the orchestra play more chamber music, and would like to develop a series of three or more concerts a season centered around a composer, a historical era or an anniversary, featuring our great symphony musicians as soloists.

I also envision a possible festival format built along those same lines. We must play a bit more music from our own generation, and that will continue to develop in the immediate future.

Posted in Classical music


  1. Don’t forget that Hilary Hahn is coming to the Wisconsin Union Theater on Feb. 17, 2011 with Valentina Lisitsa. I’m very much looking forward to that concert.

    Comment by Diva — October 19, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    • Thanks for reading and replying.
      I mentioned that in reviews and previews.
      It is also a great program she will play.
      I too look forward to a spectacular concert.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 19, 2010 @ 11:30 am

  2. Jake,

    I agree that MSO should plan to have Hillary Hahn in a future concert series. I would note that she did play with the MSO several years ago at the old Civic Center when she was just 16 or so. I remember that her father accompanied her to Madison, and Shirley and I had a chance to talk with them at the post-concert reception. She impressed us as being a very mature teen-ager.

    Comment by Stanley Inhorn — October 19, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    • Hi Stanley,
      Hiiary Hahn played here young and was terrific, as I recall.
      We were lucky and smart to book her.
      Now I would like to hear her do the Jennifer Higdon Violin Concerto.
      And of course also other things in the future, including the Stravinsky concerto and some old standards like the Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Beethoven concertos.
      Her playing is something otherworldly.
      Thanks for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 19, 2010 @ 9:36 am

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    Pingback by Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra opens 85th season this weekend with Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Bartok. Conductor John De Main talks to The… | 7 Top M Download — October 13, 2010 @ 10:50 pm

  4. I look forward, very much, to your commentary about Olga Kern. I think she’s one of the great young ones — doing more to promote her name over Lang Lang is a good thing.


    Comment by Michael Scott — October 12, 2010 @ 9:12 pm

    • Hi Michael,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      I have heard Olga Kern twice now, first in a solo recital the Wisconsin Union Theater and then in the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. And I have all her recordings, including Brahms variations and Chopin PIano Concerto No. 1.
      I agree that she is superior to Lang Lang in terms of musicianship and probably technique too.
      That said, I would still like to heard her do more non-Russian and non-virtuosic music from the solo piano repertoire –maybe some Bach and mozart and Schumann and Chopin and late Brahms.
      But I am looking forward to hearing her in Rachmaninov, which is her specialty.
      I hope my judgment satisfies you.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 12, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

  5. The MSO’s success is a reflection of outstanding artistic and managerial leadership on the podium, among the players and in the administrative offices. No cultural institution can thrive without creative, imaginative and inspired leadership.

    Comment by Marius — October 12, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    • Hi Marius,
      As ever, thanks for reading and commenting.
      I totally agree and would only add that groups needs audiences.
      So Madison and Dane County can be proud of taking the arts seriously, even in hard economic times.
      Writer Lorrie Moore may satirize the “Athens of the Midwest” moniker Madison has acquired, but culture is taken seriously here.
      I know of no other city this size with so much classical musical of such quality.
      Good to hear from you.
      Hope all is well.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 12, 2010 @ 10:10 am

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  7. Pretty incredible indeed for the MSO to be thriving in these tough times. Kudos to Maestro DeMain, the staff and members of the orchestra AND Madison!

    Comment by Jim Doing — October 12, 2010 @ 6:01 am

    • Hi Jim,
      I completely agree with you.
      Kudos and more kudos.
      Many a bigger symphony in many a bigger city have not fared so well, especially in these rough economic times.
      The MSO’s success speaks well not only of the symphony but also of the city and Dane County.
      After all, it takes listeners as well as performers and administrators for an arts group to be successful, don’t you think?
      The MSO’s success is a source of pride for all.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 12, 2010 @ 10:07 am

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