The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Maestro John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera is The Ear’s “Musician of the Year” for 2013. Plus, “New Year’s Day From Vienna” will be broadcast Wednesday once on Wisconsin Public Radio and twice on Wisconsin Public Television.

December 31, 2013

REMINDER: “New Year’s Day From Vienna,” with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performing waltzes, polkas and marches under Daniel Barenboim, will be broadcast live on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio, and then air at 1:30-3 p.m. and again at 7-8:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television.

Vienna Philharmonic

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the day last of the old year, New Year’s Eve — which means it is that time of the year again when The Ear looks back over the past year and decides who deserves to be named “Musician of the Year.”

That is never an easy decision, especially in a city with as much fine classical music and as many fine classical musicians as Madison has. There are so many talented individuals and so many outstanding groups or ensembles in the area that any number of them could qualify for the honor.

It was particularly difficult this year because, due to personal circumstances, The Ear didn’t get to attend a lot of live events he wanted to.  Even so, this year the choice seemed somewhat obvious.

For example, here is a link to an insightful overview of the 2013 season offered in Isthmus by critic John W. Barker, who often is a guest writer on this blog. You just have to scroll down through the long story until you find Barker’s spot-on assessments of the year in classical music. It should make any classical music fans envious and proud to be in Madison:

So on to the man who happens to be the most common denominator among Barker’s Best Picks: John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) is the Musician of the Year for 2013.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Let’s start at the beginning.

It has been 20 years since maestro John DeMain came to Madison as the Music Director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Artistic Director of the Madison Opera. And he is a supremely articulate — he often does interviews on TV and radio — and cordial advocate of his own causes, as you can hear for yourself in a video at the bottom and in more than a dozen video on YouTube.)

Even before he arrived here, DeMain had a high profile as the artistic director of the Houston Grand Opera, where he commissioned and premiered John Adams’ “Nixon in China” and has a long history with the City Opera, where he conducted while still a student at the Juilliard School. He had also won a prestigious Grammy Award for his landmark recording of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess.”

But coming to Madison, DeMain had a chance to show his strength as an organizational  builder and planner -– with results that the Madison public could easily see, hear and be impressed by.

John DeMain inherited a fine organization for an amateur or semi-professional orchestra, one that had been built up especially by Roland Johnson during his long tenure.

But once he took over, DeMain vastly improved the playing and then programmed more ambitious pieces for the players, and developed his approach to them. His Brahms now is tighter and leaner and more exciting than when he arrived. John DeMain (below in a photo by Greg Anderson) is devoted to lifelong learning and improvement, and doesn’t take even the music he already knows and performs for granted.

John DeMain conducting MSO CR Greg Anderson

Over his tenure, DeMain has discovered and booked exciting and affordable young guest soloists – pianist Philippe Bianconi, violinists Augustin Hadelich and Henning Kraggerud, cellist Alisa Weilerstein tenor Stephen Costello — although The Ear would also like to see some big and more expensive figures brought to town to allow us to hear these artists live. Plus, DeMain listens to dozens of auditions each year and unerringly picks great young up-and-coming singers for the Madison Opera’s season including the popular Opera in the Park each summer.

opera in park De Main_001

I also find it noteworthy and important. DeMain is in demand elsewhere and every season has many opportunities to guest conduct out of town — for the now defunct New York City Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York and many others.

John DeMain conducting 2

No less important is his willing to expand out into the local scene. In addition to the opera, he has conducted the chamber groups Con Vivo the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. He continues to play the piano — he was trained as a pianist before turning to conducting.

As an administrator and organizer, he has demonstrated great skills at putting together a team. True, the orchestra has suffered somewhat during the Great Recession and its aftermath – as did all artistic groups. It had to cut back its season by one concert, which DeMain says he hopes to restore to the subscription season.

But the same labor strife that has led to great damage to the Minnesota Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and so many others has not touched the MSO. DeMain’s contained the damage.

Having inherited double performances, DeMain took the MSO to three performances of each concert, reaching about 5,000 people or so with each “triple” performance. He continues to experiment with programming, and in late January will try out the “Behind the Score” series of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak (below).


And while some listeners might complain about the lack of more adventurous contemporary music, DeMain has seats to fill and still manages to program contemporary works every season, even with many experimental offerings nearby at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

DeMain attends concerts at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, and is a tireless promoter of music education from the televised “Final Forte” Bolz concerto competition to the matinée Young People’s concerts (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson).

MSO Fall Youth kid greg anderson

And let’s not forget that DeMain was instrumental in getting the impressive Overture Center built and then programming concerts for the orchestra’s and opera’s home in Overture Hall (below).

Overture Hall

I am sure there is more I am overlooking.

Do I have some disappointments? Sure.

I thought his 20th anniversary season would be a bit more ambitious and adventurous, and feature some big works by Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner. I would like to see few more big-name and hot young soloists, including pianists Joyce Yang, Daniil Trifonov and Jeremy Denk (below), who has done two recitals at the Wisconsin Union Theater but has yet to perform a concerto. And there are so many young talented soloists out there today, we should be hearing more of them live and while they are still affordable in our market.

Jeremy Denk playing 2

I also get impatient with what I call “playing the Gershwin card” too often -– including again for this year’s season finale -– because the important and identifiable George Gershwin (bel0w) had such an easy-listening and crossover pop-like musical style that it unfailingly draws so many listeners. I loved DeMain’s last concert version of “Porgy and Bess,” but there must be other solutions.

gershwin with pipe

But in the end I have to defer to his judgment. The excellence that John DeMain has brought to the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera has extended to the entire city and to other groups. The rising tide he brought has lifted all boats.

If any one individual can take credit for the ever-increasing quality of the classical music that wehear in Madison, that person is John DeMain (below in a photo by Katrin Talbot).


Little wonder, then, that on this 20th anniversary of his arrival in Madison, maestro John DeMain is the Musician of the Year for 2013.

Thank you, John DeMain. We all – listeners and performers alike — are in your debt.

Cheers and good luck in the coming years!

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra hits its first glorious high note of the new season with an all-Russian program plus a tribute to the loss of two of its own.

September 24, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review 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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Symphony Orchestra opened its new season with a truly memorable program this past weekend.

It had been planned as a collection entirely of Russian music, but the mood and organization were complicated by two sad losses of recent months. One was the orchestra’s long-time and beloved tuba player, Paul Haugan (below top), and the other was Roland Johnson (below), the long-time builder and conductor of the MSO as well as the co-founder of the Madison Opera.

In their memory, maestro John DeMain opened the concert with a performance of the “Adagio for Strings” — not the famous one by Samuel Barber but the one by John Stevens (below) of the University of Wisconsin School of Music. It is easy to find initial parallels with Barber’s celebrated and moving, but basically rather simplistic piece. The one by Stevens is longer, more complex: it has an integrity of its own, and more extensive thematic growth. In short, a worthy tribute.

Then came the originally intended opener, the Symphony No. 1, popularly known as the “Classical Symphony,” by Prokofiev (below). This clever and totally enjoyable re-imagining of the idiom of Haydn and Mozart is justly familiar, and widely performed. Many conductors lean a little forcefully on the score, but DeMain seemed consciously to aim for greater lightness and deftness. Though the approach diminished the tensions of the second movement, it worked well otherwise.

For this concert, be it noted, DeMain once more shifted the second violin section behind the first, instead of opposing them. The decision was made partly to address some problems of co-ordination by the violins, in what is famously tricky string writing. The issue of the players hearing each other more effectively is important, though from the audience side I still think the firsts/seconds opposition works better sonically, as DeMain (below, in a photo by Jim Gill) had been proving in recent seasons.

To balance the program around the intermission more sensibly, with the Stevens piece added, what was intended to be the final work was shifted to close the first half of the program.

This was the Suite from Stravinsky‘s “Firebird” ballet. This suite exists in two forms: the popular 1919 version, and a longer one that Stravinsky (below) made in 1945. His logic was less musical than financial: he had lost out on full royalties for the 1919 suite, and so he made this “revision” to claim new contractual profits.

Aside from tinkerings with the orchestration, the main difference between the two versions is that Stravinsky added further segments from the original ballet. While this gives us more of the score, the additions are mainly of functional and movement-supporting stuff that is of limited musical interest and strains the patience. Better to have picked the concise 1919 version. Still, DeMain led a colorful and precisely disciplined reading.

The Big Event came as the program’s second half. It is to the credit of DeMain and some of his recent guest soloists that they have avoided warhorse concertos and given us bold rarities.

And it is to the credit of the guest soloist this time, Garrick Ohlsson, that a noble rarity was indeed set forth. Instead of the terribly overplayed Piano Concerto No. 1 of Tchaikovsky (below), we were given the Concerto No. 2.

This is a far more expansive, substantial and inventive work than the flashy but superficial No. 1. While composed in the usual three movements, it is full of experiments. There are two unusually big cadenzas woven into the first movement. The second adds solo violin and cello to play off the pianist — one thinks at times of the fabulous Piano Trio in A Minor by Tchaikovsky for this combination, so memorably played last June in the Bach Dancing and Dynamite concerts.

The orchestra in general has more of a “symphonic” role of its own. And, above all, the work is filled with magnificent melodies representative of the composer at his best.

This superb work is heard far too rarely in concerts and recordings. That may be because of its length, or because the pianist fears he is being upstaged by the other two soloists in the second movement.

There is, of course, demanding bravura solo work demanded of the pianist, and Ohlsson (below) brought it off with confident musicality. His collaboration with DeMain and the orchestra was music-making of the highest quality.

This is what concerts should be like at their best — really glorious.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All of the city’s critics generally agreed.

Here is a link to what critic Greg Hettmansberger had to same about the same concert for his Madison Magazine blog “Classically Speaking”:

And here is a link to what Lindsay Christians had to say for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

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