The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: The Big Buzz these days is about regional orchestras -– and the Madison Symphony Orchestra is getting a lot of national attention for many reasons.

February 2, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

In these hard economic times, it seems with few exceptions that the news about national symphonies just keeps getting worse – with tales of cancelled seasons, curtailed budgets, bankruptcies and labor strife.

But the regional symphonies – at least some of them – are doing a lot better.

Witness the spate of great coverage the Madison Symphony Orchestra has garnered.

Below is a press release from the MSO’s new marketing director, Madison-native Henry Peters, who has worked for EMI records and has sung in the campus-community Choral Union:


“Accolades pour in as Madison’s Symphony Orchestra enters a New Year

“During the past week, Music Director John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra have received a flood of recognition from both local and national sources.

“First, new Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz hit the cover of Symphony Magazine (below), the magazine of note for America’s orchestras.

“Then the Symphony won the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra’s prestigious Rabin Youth Arts Award for significant contributions to enriching youth through the arts.

The Symphony’s weekend concerts with violinist Augustin Hadelich (below) received both standing ovations from audiences and high praise from the critics.

And finally, in a retrospective of Gershwin’sPorgy and Bess,” The New York Times praised DeMain’s historic production for restoring the work to its rightful place in American art.


In an article entitled “The New Masters,” Symphony Magazine notes a trend as talented young violinists take on leading roles at some of the nation’s most storied ensembles including the orchestras of Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Madison, Dayton and Nashville.

The MSO’s Naha Greenholtz, currently in her first year as concertmaster, graces the cover of the issue. The article inside focuses on the talent, strength, and authority these new stars bring to bear in leading ensembles composed mostly of players much older than they. See the entire article at

On Friday, the MSO received notification that it had won the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Rabin Youth Arts Award in the category of Artistic Achievement by an Organization. Named in honor of WYSO’s founder, the award recognizes individuals and organizations that have contributed significantly to the enrichment of youth through the Arts.

The winners were selected by a panel of Wisconsin arts education leaders who were “very impressed with the quality and scope of [the MSO’s] work to bring music education opportunities” to the region. The award letter stated, “The talent, passion, and commitment of those involved…especially [MSO Director of Education] Michelle Kaebisch is quite remarkable,” and went on to say, “Thank you for not only believing in the power of arts education but also for working tirelessly to spread the message.” (Below is a photo by Greg Anderson of MSO’s 2011 packed Fall Youth Concerts.)

Over the weekend, concert-goers and critics alike were hard-pressed to find the words to express their elation over the weekend’s concerts, especially violinist Augustin Hadelich’s performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Making his MSO debut, violinist Augustin Hadelich (below) drew standing ovations and rave reviews.

It was the first time in the Symphony’s 86 seasons that this extraordinarily beautiful concerto was played, and Mr. Hadelich’s performance proved what the Washington Post recently said of him: “The essence of [his] playing is beauty.”

Local critics couldn’t have agreed more. “What is it about the Madison Symphony Orchestra and violin soloists who deliver performances of Russian concertos that could melt Siberian tundra?” asked Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine. John W. Barker of Isthmus also praised Hadelich’s playing, pointing out one of the 28-year-old’s most charming characteristics: “Still with youthful qualities in so mature a musician, he seems at times to look down the strings with boyish wonder at what the instrument (a Strad) in his hands is doing.” And Jake Stockinger of Well Tempered Ear concluded, “I doubt I will hear a better performance of any concerto in this season, or many others, than I heard at the Sunday afternoon concert by the MSO.”

And finally, when New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera wrote a retrospective on the cultural significance of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” on January 21st, he paid tribute to John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill) for revitalizing “arguably the most important piece of American music written in the 20th century.” He notes that as they developed the Houston Grand Opera’s 1976 production, “the young director, Jack O’Brien, and the company’s musical director, John DeMain, did something no white director had ever done before: they consulted with the cast on how ‘Porgy and Bess’ should be played.” Donny Albert, who sang the role of Porgy in that production, recalled that “Jack and John kept asking us, ‘How do we feel about doing it this way?’ ‘Does this feel right to you?’”

Nocera credits DeMain’s production with restoring the work to its “rightful place in the pantheon of American Art.” That history-making production, both with Houston Grand Opera and New York City Opera went on to win Grammy, Tony, and Emmy awards (the last for a Live from Lincoln Center broadcast) along with France’s prestigious Gran Prix du Disque. And it led to great things for the young DeMain: after hearing the performance, Leonard Bernstein (below) went backstage to tell DeMain, “I’ve waited my whole life to hear it done this way. You’ve done it. I don’t have to.”

That meeting led to a collaboration between Bernstein and DeMain that culminated with DeMain conducting the world premiere of Bernstein’s last opera, “A Quiet Place.” DeMain went on to conduct the world premieres of a dizzying array of important operas.

And though he has conducted more than 350 performances of “Porgy and Bess” throughout the world, he has never conducted it here. Finally, John DeMain brings “Porgy and Bess” – in excerpts, not the complete opera (such as the acclaimed Seattle Opera production he led, below) — home to Madison this May 11, 12 and 13.

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