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
7 Comments

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:

http://www.thedailypage.com/scroll/2013/arts2013/index.html

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).

dvorak

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).

DeMainOpera

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!


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