The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Roland Johnson, co-founder of the Madison Opera and longtime conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, has died at 91. | June 3, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Roland Johnson (below), a longtime pioneer of classical music in Madison who paved for the way for the current artistic and financial successes of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera, died Wednesday at the age of 91.

He was also active as the head of the music department at Madison Area Technical College and cultivated local talent at MATC and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music as well as working with the many stars and guest soloists of the classical music world he brought to the city. During his retirement, he also guest conducted in Japan and elsewhere.

So far, no cause of death has been given.

Here is a link to a story in the Wisconsin State Journal (whose archives also provided the photo below) and The Capital Times/77 Square.

And here is a link to the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s website entry on Johnson and Music Director Laureate, which has a lot of background:

I have not yet seen a full obituary published, but I expect one soon. I also so far do not know about plans for a memorial service. When I know details, I will pass them along.

PLEASE NOTE: I just heard details of the Memorial Service,  Here they are: Funeral services will be held on Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 11 a.m. at MIDVALE COMMUNITY LUTHERAN CHURCH, 4329 Tokay Boulevard, Madison. A visitation will start at the church at 10 a.m. and a reception will follow. Memorials may be made to the Madison Opera, the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the Midvale Community Lutheran Church.

Johnson died just a year after the death of his very close friend Ann Stanke, who, along with Johnson’s late wife Arline, co-founded the Madison Opera and led the Madison Symphony Chorus.

I personally knew Johnson to be a generous and amiable man, one who took great pride in his fidelity to a composer’s intention and who also prided himself on studying with the great German conductor Hermann Scherchen.

Johnson, a dedicated violinist, also played in a string quartet at the University of Alabama, prior to coming to Madison in 1961. He retired in 1994 and was succeeded by John DeMain.

Johnson was not a temperamental artist but a forgiving man. When I once criticized in print the tempo at which he took a Beethoven symphony, he later explained in the most friendly of terms why he chose that tempo but at the same respected my right to disagree with his choice.

For me, Roland Johnson was a great man and a great musician. He embodied the idea of the artistic humanist who is more than a performing perfectionist. I and many other will miss him.

Please leave your tributes and observations in the Comments section.


  1. A strong and straight branch
    on Madison’s musical family tree

    Comment by carl — June 15, 2012 @ 10:22 am

  2. I am profoundly saddened to learn of Roland Johnson’s passing. He was a treasured friend and honored musical colleague. When he reached me by telephone to offer the commission for “Shining Brow” so many years ago, he truly altered the course of my life forever. His dedication to the opera on the podium, his affectionate concern for me off of the podium, I shall ever remember.

    It was an honor to compose “Joyful Music” for the Madison Symphony, Kitt Foss, John Aley, and the Madison Synpohony Chorus in his honor when he retired. Madison, and the world I knew there, revolved largely around Roland and Ann Stanke. I’d like to think they are about to sit down for a hand of cards right about now. I will miss him and be forever in his debt. Godspeed, Roland.

    Comment by daronarichagenDaron Hagen — June 5, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

  3. […] ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra has posted an In Memorium for its former longtime music director Roland Johnson (below), who died at 91 last Wednesday. Here is a link: And here is a link to the post I filed about it with other links to other stories:…. […]

    Pingback by Classic music Q&A: How and why did Madison’s newest chamber music group Sound Ensemble Wisconsin (SEW) – which makes its public debut this Friday night – come into being? « The Well-Tempered Ear — June 5, 2012 @ 12:02 am

  4. As the music scene in Madison developed inexorably around him, Roland Johnson never said “I’m being usurped”. Instead he said “What I have worked for all my life is finally happening.” There is no single individual who can claim to have done more for music in our city. My personal memory is singing from behind the screen when Roland Johnson was one of a handful of people who signed on for the performance of the remastered film of “Alexander Nevsky” with live orchestra and chorus. The film was in charge, and Roland Johnson brought us in as if we were the orchestra and chorus making the movie 50 plus years before. I can’t close any other way but to repeat that there is no single individual who can claim to have done more for music in our city.

    Comment by Jim Holden — June 3, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

  5. I well remember Roland Johnson and Ann Stanke’s obvious delight and excitement during the preparation of “Shining Brow” for its premiere in 1993. Since it was “their baby”, that was completely understandable – and it was infectious! Madison owes Roland and Arline Johnson and Ann Stanke a great debt: the MSO and Madison Opera would not probably exist without their vision and unfailing efforts. Rest in peace, and thank you.

    Comment by KO — June 3, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

  6. Roland was a delightful friend of ours and we are so fortunate to have known him. His inclusiveness, in which “ordinary” community members were invited to sing the most glorious ensemble music as well as operas often far above our ability — these were gifts he and Arline gave to those of us who were so very thrilled to be able to actually attempt to DO this music, and to experience it so personally. It was their courage in doing “Turandot” to open the Oscar Mayer Theater back in the 80s that led to my great love for opera.

    Roland was also, to us, our secret political pal. We had many conversations in his room behind the stage about the nest of Tennessee Democrats where he learned, and continued to embrace, quietly but with conviction, his populist politics (remember Kefauver?)

    One resonant memory is the concerts in the Stock Pavilion. In that unique location, with its odd odor, David and I were thrilled to sing the great oratorios under Roland’s vigorous leadership.

    We also remember the night when he brought the orchestra along in what looked like a struggle to accompany Nureyev when he danced at the Oscar Mayer Theater. It was a bit of a bizarre night, but Roland pulled it together somehow.

    Thank you, Roland, for all that you have done for us.

    Comment by Kathy McElroy & David Newby — June 3, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    • Hi Kathy and David,
      You revive so many memories of mine too.
      I also recall the Stock Pavilion where he conducted pianist Van Cliburn, who arrived rushed and late, in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2.
      I also remember him conducting of the young (in those days) pianists Emanuel Ax in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Mischa Dichter in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 — all in the auditorium of the old MATC downtown building that the Madison Symphony called home bare the Civic Center opened.
      Roland took what he had to work with and made the best of it — and gave us memorable experiences despite it all.
      That was a special gift and one Roland had in abundance.
      Thank you for reading and replying with such warm and historic memories.
      Yours in music,

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 3, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

      • one more note on the Van Cliburn concert. Roland explained that VC had asked the cabbie to take him to the Stock Pavillion and the cabbie took him to the exhibition auditorium at the Coliseum. A scramble ensued but VC arrived in the nick of time.

        Comment by carl — June 15, 2012 @ 10:14 am

  7. Roland was invariably a generous, friendly, and kind person. My heart goes out to his son Carl and daughter-in-law Barbara. Roland brought as much joy and light to this community as anyone ever has. There was about him always a joie de vivre, an outgoing warmth, a direct interest in everyone. Over the many years of writing about music and opera in Madison, I often had — and thoroughly enjoyed — the opportunity to sit with him and discuss matters of mutual interest, not merely about music but about many, many other things as well. I was always certain that he just loved everything he was engaged in. Rest in peace, dear Maestro, and thank you yet again for all the good you brought to us.

    Comment by Jess Anderson — June 3, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

    • Hi Jess,
      Once again, you put your finger on all the important things.
      Roland may well have been the single most important or influential arts figure in Madison in the past 50 or 60 years or even the last century.
      He built the basics and then kept building on the basics.
      Roland was one major reasons a town this size has such an outstanding classical music scene and an out-of-proportion number of classical music events.
      Thank you for your eloquent words and heart-felt sentiments.
      You speak for many.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 3, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

      • Thank you Jess and Jake, for your kind words.

        My father also enjoyed and respected your opinion and professionalism…something he always strived to bring to the music scene in Madison

        Comment by carl — June 15, 2012 @ 10:18 am

  8. Hi Jake,

    Here is a link to the online obituary for Roland Johnson.

    Funeral services will be held on Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 11 a.m. at MIDVALE COMMUNITY LUTHERAN CHURCH, 4329 Tokay Boulevard, Madison. A visitation will start at the church at 10 a.m. and a reception will follow. Memorials may be made to Madison Opera, Madison Symphony Orchestra or Midvale Community Lutheran Church.


    Comment by Lynn Morgan — June 3, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

    • Hi Lynn,
      Thank you for the information.
      I have included it in the original post.
      I suspect it will be a crowded memorial.
      THat is the kind of man he was and remained.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 3, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

  9. Roland Johnson was truly gracious man and a pillar of the cultural life of our community for half a century.

    Comment by Marius — June 3, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

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