The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director John DeMain discusses the 2017-18 season with critic John W. Barker | May 11, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, an interview with the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s music director John DeMain about the next season, conducted and written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog John W. Barker.

Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Last month, I had a welcome opportunity to sit down with John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, together with his marketing director, Peter Rodgers, to discuss the orchestra’s recently announced 2017-18 concert season. (NOTE: Today is the deadline for current subscribers to renew and keep their seats. You can call 608 257-3734 or go to

This meeting allowed me new insights into the various factors that go into selecting a season’s repertoire. It also gave me further appreciation of Maestro DeMain’s personality and talents.

It further revealed the unfairness of some criticism made that the coming season is “conservative” and repetitive of familiar works. In fact, his programming involves very thoughtful awareness of the differing expectations of the varied audience.

It has become customary to make the season’s opening concert a showcase for talented members of the orchestra, rather than for guest soloists.

The September program thus offers a masterpiece I particularly relish, Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a symphony with viola obbligato — featuring the orchestra’s principal violist, Chris Dozoryst (below).

But the inclusion of the neglected Fifth or “Reformation” Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn was decided as a link to this year’s 500th-anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther’s launching of the Lutheran Reformation in 1517. Also on the program is Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The October program contains a notable example of a familiar and popular “warhorse,” Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” This was indeed performed by the MSO two seasons back as part of the “Beyond the Score” presentations. DeMain indicates that the close repetition is made deliberately to connect with that past event, to expand further the audiences’ understanding of the work.

He is also juxtaposing the symphony with the appearance of the acclaimed Olga Kern (below), playing the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber and with the “Mother Goose” Suite by Maurice Ravel.

The November soloist is guitarist Sharon Isbin, in two concertos, one new (“Affinity” by Chris Brubeck) and one old (Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo)  She plays with her instrument electronically amplified, something very off-putting in my experience. But DeMain notes that all guitarists do that now in concert work, and he wanted to include the guitar to bring in new and different audience members.

Inclusion of suites by Aaron Copland and Manuel de Falla – “Billy the Kid” and “The Three-Cornered Hat,” respectively — also represent popular appeal.

January will bring a triumph for DeMain: the appearance of violinist Gil Shaham (below), after 15 years of efforts to secure him. Shaham will perform the Violin Concerto by Peter Tchaikovsky.

The all-Russian program also allows DeMain to venture for the first time into “The Love for Three Oranges” suite by Sergei Prokofiev and the Third Symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The issue of “warhorse” repetition is raised by the First Symphony by Johannes Brahms in the February program. But DeMain points out that it has been 10 years since the MSO played the work, a significant one that richly deserves performance by now.

He is also proud to include with it the outstanding Rossini opera overture (Semiramide) and the rarely heard Cello Concerto, with German cellist Alban Gerhardt (below), by the 20th-century British composer William Walton.

DeMain admits to mixed feelings about the “Beyond the Score” presentations of music and background context, but he is confident that the one offered (one night, outside subscriptions) on March 18, about the monumental Enigma Variations, by Sir Edward Elgar, (below) will work well.

The combination in April of Benjamin Britten’s powerful Sinfonia da Requiem and Robert Schumann’s First Symphony (“Spring”) with Antonin Dvorak’s sadly neglected Violin Concerto has special meanings for the maestro. It allows the return of the greatly admired Augustin Hadelich (below) as soloist.

But it also allows DeMain’s return, for his first time since 1974, to the Schumann score, with which he had a crucial encounter in a youthful appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Finally, the May program is an unusually exciting combination of Mozart’s too-little-appreciated Piano Concerto No. 22 with soloist Christopher O’Riley (below) of NPR’s “From the Top” with the roof-raising Glagolitic Mass, featuring the Madison Symphony Chorus, of Leos Janacek.

DeMain has made important commitments to the orchestral music of Janacek (below) before this, and his advance to the composer’s great blockbuster choral work is a landmark.

Amid savoring DeMain’s thoughts on the season – which also includes the MSO’s traditional Christmas concert in early December — and his wonderful recollections of past experiences, I came to recognize more than ever the remarkable combination of talents he brings to his Madison podium.

Beyond so many conductors, DeMain has had deeply engaging phases of his career in orchestral literature (large and small), in opera and musical theater, and in chamber music, while being himself an accomplished pianist.

With the breadth of his range, he brings a particular sensitivity to the contexts and diversities of what he conducts. He has become to his musicians not only a skilled guide, but also a subtle teacher, deepening their understanding without any hint of pedantry.

It cannot be said enough how truly blessed we are to have him with us in Madison.

For more information about the 2017-18 season, including specific dates and times, and about purchasing tickets for new subscribers and renewing subscribers, go to:

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  1. Here’s a different perspective on the MSO: earlier this month I attended a conference in Phoenix of the ROPA (Regional Orchestra Players’ Association). I went as a representative of the MSO, and enjoyed meeting and working with reps from orchestras across the country.

    When I made my orchestra report, jaws dropped at my account of the splendor of our hall, the breadth and depth of the community engagement, the financial solidity, and the recent amicably-concluded contract negotiations.

    This success is by design. The MSO’s multi-pronged outreach programs touch the lives of the young, old, black, white, gay, straight, and more. Free events include the Farmer’s Market concerts, the Community Hymn Sings, the ‘Meet the Musician’ at the Children’s Museum, and Opera In The Park. The list on their website of special events and educational initiatives is truly astounding. The MSO has become a pillar of musical life in Madison.

    And I think that spirit of collaboration comes right from the top. I will never forget how, when the Madison School District was considering cutting arts funding, Maestro DeMain wrote a heartfelt letter to the editor of the local newspaper, offering powerful arguments in support of a strong arts program in the schools. I concur with John Barker that Madison is blessed to have Maestro DeMain leading the MSO; my colleagues from across the nation were extremely impressed by, and even jealous of, our situation.

    My intention is not to negate other’s comments, but to offer another, equally valid, perspective.

    Respectfully yours,
    Marika Fischer Hoyt


    Comment by Marika Fischer Hoyt — August 15, 2017 @ 10:23 pm

  2. Here’s some innovative programming from our nearby friends in Minnesota. It’s the Beethoven Festival coming up in July 6-16.

    And while there will be plenty of solid, traditional Beethoven played by the likes of Joshua Bell, the Minnesota Orchestra, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, and the Manhattan Chamber Players (in a program featuring a relatively underplayed piece by Tchaikovsky, the Souvenir de Florence, Opus 70) there is also a lot of other wonderful music, lots of it contemporary. That includes a concert by the Anderson & Roe Piano duo that will feature pieces by Astor Piazzolla; Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah; Paul McCartney’s Let it Be; and Adams’s Hallelujah Junction. Dale Warland & the Festival Chorus wrap up the event with a delightful looking concert that features: an American/Scandinavian Eclectic Mass; something called Elgar Meets Bach; some Russian songs; and a collection of French language songs by the Dutch composer Henk Badings.

    This is the kind of innovative programming that Madison needs but doesn’t get.


    Comment by FFlambeau — May 11, 2017 @ 8:03 pm

  3. Contrast what the MSO is doing with the far more innovative Pacific Symphony at

    Or with what the Nashville (that’s in innovative Tennessee) are doing at or

    to that of:
    The Anchorage (Alaska) Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming season which has some really exciting programs coming up including a centennial tribute to Leonard Bernstein; Rachel Barton Pine playing violin with a composition of Amy Beach’s “Gaelic” Symphony and an interesting concert devoted to veterans with music from A. Copland, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Samuel Barber. There’s also an harpist centered “passion” night with pieces of Villa-Lobos, R. Murry Schafer and Scriabin.

    This is coming from a city that is roughly Madison’s size. See:

    Sorry, but the MSO is simply not very innovative (especially for an exciting university city and capital city).


    Comment by FFlambeau — May 11, 2017 @ 4:46 am

  4. Antonin Dvorak’s Violin concerto has been “sadly neglected?”

    YouTube might be a bit new-fangled for the guest writer (it does require the Internet and electricity) but it has 10 or 11 full pages (each with some 20 individual recordings, many of them by different artists) devoted to that work alone. It has been RECORDED by everyone from Adolph Busch (1944) to Joseph Suk to Yehudi Menuhin to David Oistrakh to Isaac Stern to Nathan Milstein to Itzhakh Perlman to Chung Kyung-Wha to Anne-Sophie Mutter to Sarah Chang to Ziyu He to Laurence Kayaleh (and I’ve left out dozens of others who have recorded it). Think then how many times it’s been played!


    Comment by FFlambeau — May 11, 2017 @ 3:29 am

  5. Yes, the upcoming season schedule by the MSO seems more adventurous than many past ones for them. But overall, the Maestro’s tenure here in Madison has been an overwhelmingly conservative, “war horse” ridden one. And the shift in direction for the upcoming year seems more likely to me to be the result of audience pressure than anything else (it was quite informative to see all the comments by individuals, mostly in favor of newer programming, here in a recent column).

    It is almost laughable to read the final few paragraphs by the guest writer. Yes, Mr. De Main had a reputation in opera once but what has he really done with it in an innovative way in Madison? Very, very little that I can see.

    What has he done for newly commissioned works? Very, very little, that I can see.

    Even, the “Beyond the Score” concept (one originated elsewhere, by the way) seems to be a bit too much for him. In what ways? We don’t know because the guest writer failed to ask important follow-up questions. And who with a rigorous mind could let this go unquestioned: “DeMain indicates that the close repetition (of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”) is made deliberately to connect with that past event, to expand further the audiences’ understanding of the work.” Dvorak wrote many wonderful pieces besides that one, but to perform a different one would indeed require more work and some study.

    The MSO, in my opinion, has indeed taken steps forward in the last few years but that is mostly due to Overture Hall itself and the community, not the lackluster leadership at the top. I think the MSO would benefit greatly from new leadership.


    Comment by FFlambeau — May 11, 2017 @ 1:28 am

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