The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra’s maestro John DeMain looks back with pride on 20 years and forward with gratitude to many more years in Madison as long as the city wants him and he remains physically capable of the job.

March 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

You may recall that last week the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) announced its next season, 2013-14, which is special because it marks the 20th year of the tenure of music director and conductor John DeMain.

Here are links to the MSO website and to this blog’s announcement of the MSO’s new season:


The season announcement by DeMain and his administrative team took place over lunch. It was on a cold rainy day in the light-filled rooftop restaurant Al Fresco, located in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which is also located in the Overture Center where the MSO regularly performs in Overture Hall.

Looking trim and fit, DeMain gave an articulate, humorous and informative introduction to the upcoming season, even though he had just had just had a very busy week that included three subscription concerts, a sold-out morning of children’s concerts and the sold-out Final Forte teenage concerto competition that was broadcast live over Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio:

After a lunch of Chicken and Caesar salad dressing wraps and green salad, the gregarious and amiable DeMain opened up the session to informal questions.

The Ear asked DeMain (below in a photo by Greg Anderson) to reflect on the last 20 years and what he made of it, and to look forward to his future in Madison – especially since the average tenure of a conductor is around 10 years.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Well first of all, I think that 10-year tenure rule is true for large, major 52-week orchestras. But for orchestras of this size, I think communities of this size don’t like to see too much change if they don’t have to. And there are always exceptions even at the big orchestras.

How would I sum up my 20 years here? Obviously, I am thrilled that during my tenure we went from two to three performances (triples) of each concert and that we got the Overture Center (below), which is such a great home in which to make music and opera. Both the musicians and I so love being in this home. The hall also attracts the top-notch musicians in the orchestras that I get to work with. It’s been a real high. (Below top is the Overture Center; below bottom is Overture Hall.)


Overture Hall

As for repertoire, I wanted to do all the Mahler symphonies and I did. So now we are looking at still more composers that we’ve neglected and composers that we want to do more of and haven’t. But that comes in the future. Right now, we want to celebrate next season with a feast of beautiful music and use the next season to celebrate.

The great thing about music is there is so much beautiful music out there is that if you can’t do one beautiful piece, you can do another. You don’t really feel bad about it because there is a limitless choice of good music out there. You just can’t get to all you want to play when you want to play it.

I am so glad where I am in this community where there is such a love of the arts and such support for the arts. It is a heart-warming experience every time we do a subscription weekend.

John DeMain conducting 2

I also love it when a guest soloist comes to me and says — which has happened twice in the past month -– “I’ve done this piece with such and such a major orchestra and you are already doing it better than they ever did.”

Experiencing music live is great. Take the Shostakovich 10th Symphony we just did. You see the violins take a down bow in an aggressive moment. The orchestra plays with a physical involvement that goes with the audience as well as the listening does. The audiences tell me over and over again how much they enjoy watching the orchestra play — as long as it enhances the experience of the music.

I’ve always been the kind of musician who likes being in a long-term relationship or post. I don’t particularly enjoy guesting. I was with Houston Grand Opera a long time. Now I’m here with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera a long time.

What I do is my brand of music-making and the next person who comes along will have their way of making music. But by staying on, you have a chance to develop. By being here a long time you have a chance to raise the bar and set a high standard just by being here and not being away all the time and running around. I like the idea of growing and maturing with the orchestra during these years and having a beautiful home.

John DeMain conducting

Barring the unforeseen, I certainly expect to be here to celebrate my 25th anniversary and from then on we will see. One doesn’t think about age except maybe when looking in the mirror. But if your ears are OK and your eyes are OK and your arms are OK, making music is lifelong experience. I don’t think it has a timeline to it. We know that. Just look at Lorin Maazel, who is still conducting at 83. There is no real time line there unless you just can’t do it.

Here is John DeMain on TV, NBC 15, talking about a 2011 MSO concert featuring local UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor. You can find many more John DeMain videos on YouTube.

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