The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera conductor John DeMain talks about the role of the piano in his career and his upcoming performances this weekend with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck Schumann songs and romances, and of Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann” for piano, four-hands. | June 19, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Madison and the rest of the world know John DeMain (below, in a  photo by Prasad) primarily as a symphony and opera conductor who is also the longtime music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

But this acclaimed conductor, who won a Grammy Award for his recording of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” and who conducted the world premiere of John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China” at the Houston Grand Opera, started his career as a promising pianist, as did many other conductors including Leonard Bernstein (with whom DeMain studied conducting), Sir Georg Solti, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim and Christoph Eschenbach. Aside from the pipe organ, the piano is generally considered to be the most orchestral of instruments — so it really comes as no surprise that so many conductors started out as pianists. (To be fair, still other well-known conductors began as string or wind players.)

DeMain will return to the piano this weekend when he splits accompanying duties with pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), the co-founder and co-director of the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. DeMain and Jeffrey Sykes will perform jointly in Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann,” Op. 23, and will take turns accompanying other performers in songs and romances for flute. (BDDS is also performing  a second program of  songs and chamber music by Ferdinand Ries, Ned Rorem, Frank Martin and Gabriel Faure.) 

Performances are on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Playhouse (below top) and on Sunday evening, at 6:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater (below bottom) at the landmark and historic Frank Lloyd Wright compound Taliesin in Spring Green.

BDDS Playhouse audience

taliesin_hillside2

The rest of the “love triangle” program of music by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann (both below) and Johannes Brahms includes many songs by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann and Brahms; Robert Schumann’s Three Romances for flute and piano, Op. 94; Clara Wieck Schumann’s Three Romances for flute and piano Op. 22. For more information about the program, performers and tickets, visit http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org

Schumann_Robert_and_Wieck_Clara

DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear:

DeMainOpera

Most of us know you as a conductor, even though you have played continuo and conducted smaller operas from the keyboard for the Madison Opera. You started out as a pianist. Can you tell about your time as a pianist from starting lessons through competitions and Juilliard and the decision to go into conducting?

I started studying piano at the age of six. I was a pretty good sight-reader and loved to accompany myself singing. When I was a senior in high school, I won the Youngstown Symphony Society’s piano competition, competing with college-level students.

After making my debut playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the symphony, I decided to audition for Juilliard. I was accepted and studied for six years with Adele Marcus (below, as a demanding young teacher and performer). I played chamber music with the concertmaster of the Juilliard orchestra, and I won a competition in New York for young artists.

Adele Marcus

Why did you want to change from being a pianist to being a conductor, especially an opera conductor? (What are the comparative pleasures and pains of each, the piano and conducting?)

Conducting sort of coexisted side by side with playing the piano. I was conducting the grade school band in fourth-grade when the teacher didn’t show up. It came to me naturally.

While at Juilliard I took some elective conducting courses with Jorge Mester (below). I earned my tuition for Juilliard by conducting musicals for big summer stock theaters in the summer.

063040_PasadeSym_LKH_

After graduating from Juilliard, I continued to play chamber music in New York and played a few recitals. I always had a big love for the theater, opera and singing as well as the symphony orchestra.

Certain opportunities were presented to me in the field of conducting, starting with the Norwalk Connecticut Symphony, followed by a lengthy stint with opera for public television.

That, in turn, led to a summer studying conducting at Tanglewood, and to beginning my professional career at the New York City Opera as the second winner of the Julius Rudel award. (Below is a photo of Julius Rudel, the Austrian native who led the New York City Opera for many years and also guest conducted at the Met and elsewhere .) My duties included 35 hours a week of coaching and playing rehearsals. So the piano was always part of my professional life.

julius rudel

My next position was with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (below) as associate conductor. In addition to conducting the orchestra on tour and having my own subscription concerts, I was playing chamber music with members of the orchestra on our chamber music series.

St Paul Chamber Orchestra

How did the piano affect your conducting and what did you bring to conducting from the piano? And inversely, what does conducting now bring to your playing the piano?

Playing the piano is a great aid in learning orchestral scores. One can study both the melodic content of a work, but even more importantly the harmonic structure of the music.

Conducting makes me aware of pulse when I’m playing the piano. And, of course, there is the imagining the piano part as though it would be orchestrated, much the same way we imagine the human voice singing an orchestral melody.

I think the life of a pianist can be more isolated, considering the many hours of practicing that is required. While studying orchestral and operatic scores is also isolated and private, there are so many rehearsals with the cast or the orchestra that makes for a more social experience. That seems to suit me better.

John DeMain conducting 2

I suppose the trite answer is we do something because we can. I love the big playground of opera and symphony, and wouldn’t trade it for the world. But making music at the piano with fellow musicians is such an important part of a complete musical life.

In the orchestra world, we like to say that all music is chamber music. Listening to each other and responding accordingly is a great part of great orchestral playing. One develops this playing chamber music. Playing one-on one with your fellow musicians where everyone is equal. I feel blessed that I can participate in all of this from time to time.

Do have any comment about Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann” for piano, four-hands, and other works you will be performing this weekend with Jeffrey Sykes for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society?

I certainly don’t play the piano publicly that frequently anymore, and I haven’t for years. But I thought this would be a rewarding experience, which is turning out to be just that. I have big respect for what Stephanie Jutt (who is principal flute with the Madison Symphony Orchestra) and Jeffrey Sykes (below) have created. And I love Jeffrey’s pianism.

jeffrey sykes

The Brahms theme-and-variations (played by the Kontarsky brothers in a YouTube video at bottom) are rather extraordinary, and we are enjoying ourselves immense putting them together. They are harmonically quite daring at times, and of course deal in the finality of life as well. It should be an interesting concert.


4 Comments »

  1. Great post. Thank you, Ear. R

    Comment by Ronnie Hess — June 21, 2013 @ 10:07 am


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