The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra return to a traditional Opening Gala concert with a guest soloist and big pieces, and move the all-orchestra concert to a later date? | October 28, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

You can’t blame longtime music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) for wanting to put the spotlight on the players of the Madison Symphony Orchestra that he has built up over nearly 25 years.

After all, the orchestra members play well and respond superbly to DeMain’s direction, no matter what you might think of his programming and interpretations. He is proud of them with good reason.

So The Ear can easily understand why for the past few years DeMain has chosen to use an all-orchestra concert, with its principals taking the place of guest soloists, to open the season.

Yet DeMain also likes to emphasize the challenges he faces in selling tickets, filling seats and keeping the MSO a commercially successful orchestra.

The Ear noticed that this year, the all-orchestra opening concert of works by Bach-Stokowski, Mendelssohn and Berlioz, with principal violist Christopher Dozoryst as soloist, seemed to draw a smaller and less enthusiastic audience than the second concert did last weekend.

That second concert included the “Mother Goose” Suite by Ravel, the surefire “New World” Symphony by Dvorak and the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber with guest pianist Olga Kern (below). The audience wildly cheered her and her flashy, virtuosic playing until it received an encore (the Prokofiev etude heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So the question came to The Ear:

Should the MSO return to a traditional Gala Opening, with a surefire program and a high-profile guest soloist, and leave the all-orchestra concert until the second concert of the season?

The Ear checked out what other orchestras do.

This year, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The Los Angeles Philharmonic opened with a gala program that featured pianists Yuja Wang and Jean-Yves Thibaudet teaming up in an all-Mozart program. The San Francisco Orchestra featured superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The Philadelphia Orchestra programmed pianist Emanuel Ax and the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial is being celebrated this season. The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened with Frederica von Stade, plus other singers, in an all-Bernstein program.

True, the Sheboygan Symphony also used the all-orchestra opener, and The Ear is sure there are many other orchestras, including some prominent ones, that do the same.

But it got The Ear to wondering. So he asked some other loyal MSO fans what they thought about returning to a traditional Gala Opening – one that announces to potential subscribers that great soloists will be featured during the season – and then moving the all-orchestra concert to a different date.

All the people he spoke to agreed that such a move would probably draw bigger audiences and capture the public’s attention better. One loyal patron even said that by going to the all-orchestra opening, the MSO (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) was “just being cheap.”

Plans are probably already being made for next season, so it is likely too late to make any changes that soon.

But what about the 2018-19 season?

What do you think?

Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra return to a traditional Gala Opening that features big-name soloists and well-known pieces?

Should it move the all-orchestra concert with principal soloists to, say, the second concert of the season?

Or should things stay the way they are?

Which way do you think would be more commercially successful and sell more seats for that concert and for the rest of the season?

And which way would be more artistically satisfying?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. We should definitely return to a Gala opening, and then inserting the program which features our own musicians at a later date. The main reason that there was a less than enthusiastic response to the first symphony concert and soloist is that the audience could not hear him adequately! We have excellent seats in the Circle, but this was true for us as well. I was amazed that for a Sunday concert, this problem continued… Jane Pizer PS. How blessed we are by being able to experience your *Well Tempered Ear*. I wish that even more people knew about this. I try to spread the word…

    On Sat, Oct 28, 2017 at 12:01 AM, The Well-Tempered Ear wrote:

    > welltemperedear posted: “By Jacob Stockinger You can’t blame longtime > music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Peter > Rodgers) for wanting to put the spotlight on the players of the Madison > Symphony Orchestra that he has built up over nearly 25 years. ” >

    Comment by Jane Pizer — October 28, 2017 @ 9:17 am

  2. I agree completely with your observation and assessment. I think a spectacular opening gala sets a tone of great art, great music and great expectations for the season! I also greatly enjoy hearing and seeing our accomplished musicians being featured. Being featured second or third would give time for increased marketing and increased awareness and expectancy. We have a great orchestra and we should always appreciate it as such.

    Dale Sinnett 20+ Year season ticket holder. I love “my” orchestra.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Comment by Dale Sinnett — October 28, 2017 @ 7:12 am

  3. I agree with your recommendation.

    Comment by Deb — October 28, 2017 @ 6:24 am

  4. There’s one sure way to bring people back: make a change at the top. 25 years of one maestro is WAY TOO long. That will bring about other needed changes, and more innovative programming. The current leader is moribund.

    Sorry to say it but he should have been replaced 10 years ago. It’s a mistake to keep on with the same old…old….

    P.S. I find it hilarious to see you comparing the MSO with the orchestras in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia etc. Sheboygan is more like it.

    Comment by fflambeau — October 28, 2017 @ 6:15 am

    • The comment brings to mind another old old which became old, I believe, by being a top truth: Better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

      Please do let us require retirement of one and all after 10 years of the age of 35. Let us do all drink only the new wine…etc.

      Comment by fred holtzman — November 2, 2017 @ 6:19 am

  5. I would agree. I’d also suggest that some of the fine younger artists wh0 clearly have a bright future, be selected as soloists? This seems to be working well for the new Curator of the organ.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — October 28, 2017 @ 6:06 am

  6. Anne-Sophie Mutter was occasionally @ the National Music Camp/Interlochen (MI) Arts Academy when I was there in the 1970s, so personally I suppose Ishould prefer an internationally acclaimed soloist for the MSO’s season opener. But since I’m personally acquainted with the MSO’s 2d flutist, I really don’t care 1 way or the other: Soloist vs orchestral opening concert. I really love the group’s performances no matter what.

    Comment by buppanasu — October 28, 2017 @ 12:18 am

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