The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra turns this weekend to George Gershwin and his legacy with Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Arlen to close out its 88th season and conductor John DeMain’s 20th anniversary.

April 28, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

The big musical event this week is that The Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) will close out its 88th season and music director-conductor John DeMain’s 20th anniversary season.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The MSO will do so by turning to George Gershwin and his legacy with composers Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Arlen in three performances this weekend.

The program includes: the “Catfish Row Suite” from Porgy and Bess”; the “I Got Rhythm” Variations for Piano and Orchestra (at the bottom in a historic YouTube video played by the composer who also introduces the work); a series of Gershwin’s most memorable songs for the stage including “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “By Strauss,” “Embraceable You,” “S’Wonderful” and “Somebody Loves Me”;  Leonard Bernstein’s Overture and “Glitter and Be Gay” from his opera “Candide” and the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” as well as a love duet from the classic musical. Songs include Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.”

The performances are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16.50 to $82.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or go to the box office in person to save service fees or visit:

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Full-time students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at:

Of course some purists might carp this program is really a Pops Concert disguised as a serious symphony orchestra fare. But the symphony has seats to fill. And whenever John DeMain programs and conducts the music of Gershwin, the results are spectacular and popular. After all, DeMain (below) won a Grammy for his recording of Gershwin’s operas “Porgy and Bess” and then was featured in a live performance of the same work on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

In addition, Gershwin worked closely with composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein (below) on Bernstein’s own operas.

Leonard Bernstein 1971

Says music director and conductor John DeMain: “I’m a big fan of George Gershwin (below) for obvious reasons. For me, he embodies what it means to be an American musician. Trained in the classics, but deeply connected to the music of his country, Gershwin fused American folk music and jazz into a concert format that continues to thrill and resonate with audiences all over the world to this present day. “Porgy and Bess” is such a monumental achievement in this regard as well. It focuses on our African-American culture, and uses the music of spirituals and jazz to form its leitmotifs. It is again universal, and distinctly American.

DeMain adds: “Actually, what composer wasn’t influenced by Gershwin? At our May concert there isn’t remotely enough time to do a survey of all who came under Gershwin’s direct or indirect influence, but Harold Arlen, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (below bottom, inane NPR photo) were definitely among those who carried on the music theater tradition that Gershwin was such a master at.”

gershwin with pipe


Several other reasons add to the appeal.

Garrick Olsen (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is a young and very promising local pianist who won the Bolz Young Artist Competition, when, broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio, he performed Maurice Ravel’s  difficult Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with the MSO in the Final Forte competition. He will also compete in the upcoming Piano Arts Competition in Milwaukee.

Garrick Olsen in tux by Greg Anderson

Soprano Emily Birsan, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music before going into the training program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She has been appearing in a lot of local production from University Opera and Candid Concert Opera and the Madison Opera to the Middleton Community Orchestra

Emily Birsan less tarty 2 NoCredit

Mezzo-soprano Karen Olivo (below top) is a Tony Award-winning singer and actor who recently relocated to Madison.

Karen Olivo with Tony Award.jpg

And baritone Ron Raines (below bottom) has a lot buzz associated with him.

ron raines

Here is a link to the general MSO website with more information about the soloists and the program as well as audio samples of the repertoire:

And here is a link to comprehensive program notes by MSO trombonist and University of Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen:

Major funding for this concert is provided by an anonymous friend and BMO Private Bank. Additional Funds are provided by Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Capitol Lakes, Mildred and Marv Conney, Terry Haller, J.P. Cullen and Sons, Inc., Ann Lindsey and Charles Snowdon, Tom and Nancy Mohs, and the Wisconsin Arts Board.

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Classical music Q&A: University of Wisconsin conductor James Smith discusses the program of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Sibelius that the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform at a FREE concert this Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Also, UW soprano Elizabeth Hagedorn will sing Mahler songs in a FREE concert Thursday afternoon at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, plus a WORT-FM show on Thursday morning highlights the Madison Symphony Orchestra and its music director John DeMain.

September 25, 2013
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TWO ALERTS: On this Thursday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, UW-Madison dramatic soprano Elizabeth Hagedorn (below) —  filling in for soprano Julia Faulkner, who is on a leave-of-absence this academic year — will make her local debut. The FREE concert features her singing Gustav Mahler‘s moving “Rueckert Songs” with UW pianist Martha Fischer. It is part of the Wisconsin Science Festival that combines science lectures and live classical music  in the SoundWaves program that is organized and directed by UW horn professor Daniel Grabois. For more information, visit the outstanding “Fanfare” blog at the UW School of Music: Here is a link:

And here are links to more stories about Elizabeth Hagedorn:

Elizabeth Hagedorn 1

ALSO: Blog friend and radio host Rich Samuels (below) writes: “On this Thursday morning, Sept. 26, beginning at 7:08 a.m. on my weekly show “Anything Goes” that is broadcast from 5-8 a.m. on WORT 89.9 FM. I’ll be airing an interview I recently recorded with the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director John DeMain (the MSO’s 2013-2914 concert season begins, of course, on this Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.

“Maestro DeMain talks about his transition from the Houston Grand Opera to the Madison Symphony Orchestra and about the artistic state of the orchestra as he begins his 20th season on the podium.

“Music for the segment will include selections from DeMain’s 1996 Grammy award-winning recording the Houston Grand Opera made when its production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” was playing Broadway.

“Half the segment deals with the upcoming season and some of the younger soloists who will be heard between now and next May. We’ll hear performances by Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth, violinist Augustin Hadelich, soprano Emily Birsan and the young Madison pianist Garrick Olsen (not to be confused with pianist Garrick Ohlsson).”

Rich Samuels

By Jacob Stockinger

This is the week of orchestral season debuts. Yesterday, The Ear spotlighted the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s concerts this weekend.

But at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on this Sunday evening — on what The Ear calls “Symphony Sunday” with performances by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the UW Symphony Orchestra and the Edgewood College Chamber Orchestra — the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform a FREE concert under its longtime director James Smith, who also directs the UW Chamber Orchestra and is the music director of University Opera.

Smith recently granted The Ear an email Q&A about the concert:


You programmed “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky (below) because this is the centennial year of its world premiere. How important is that work in the symphonic repertoire and to music history in general?

It is often cited as a landmark work in all respects.  Several faculty members mentioned that we ought to perform it so that the students can appreciate its impact.  At the time, 1913, the harmonies, the savage rhythms and the choreography were all quite jolting to the Paris audiences.

Right from the start, the bassoon explores a new range for the instrument as it sets the stage for the pagan ritual ahead.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

How challenging technically is the “Rite of Spring” in general to perform but especially for UW undergraduate students? What makes it such a difficult work?

It is difficult on all levels: rhythmic, technical and tessitura (the comfort range of notes for a specific kind of voice or instrument).. We have performed works by Bohuslav Martinu, Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Gustav Mahler who also posed special difficulties. The students are working very hard outside of the rehearsals so that we can all experience this exciting work. (Below is a photo of the UW Symphony Orchestra performing with the UW Choral Union plus a link to a video by Kathy Esposito, concert manager and public relations director at the UW School of Music, of the UW Symphony Orchestra and conductor James Smith rehearsing “The Rite of Spring” that Esposito posted on Facebook.)

UW Symphony w choral-union2

Why did you choose the “Egmont” Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven to go with this program? Are there special thematic or pedagogical reasons?

Simple answer:  It is a great way to start a program, and an opportunity for my graduate assistant to be introduced to the audience.  His name is Kyle Knox (below).  He is also an accomplished clarinetist who is the assistant principal clarinetist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Kyle Knox

The Third Symphony is not one of the most famous or popular symphonies by Jean Sibelius (below). Why did you choose to program it and what should audience members listen for or pay attention to?

Good question. After the rather romantic and somewhat conventional First and Second Symphonies, the Third Symphony loses much of the bombast and announces a more austere and restless path. As my teacher one commented, Sibelius became more and more “north” in style and mood: austere and quixotic. (The first movement can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom as performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.)


Classical music news: Everyone loves a Gershwin tune. That’s why George Gershwin is the go-to composer when symphony orchestras want to drum up attendance and close seasons on a high note.

May 18, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

 “You know, it is going to be hard to get good seats. This concert is really popular and has very sold well,” said the Overture Center’s box office agent when I went to exchange tickets to last weekend’s all-Gershwin concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra from Sunday afternoon to Friday night.

And she was right.

So I ended up sitting pretty close to the stage, with a somewhat limited vision of the soloists and especially of the full orchestra and chorus.

But one look backwards over my shoulder, out into beautiful Overture Hall, and I saw how packed the 2,200-seat hall was – and it was really packed. That is surely an enviable way to end a season on a high note.

Not that it was unexpected.

By now we all should know that MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below) has a special talent for Gershwin. He is closely identified with the opera “Porgy and Bess.” His recording of it won a Grammy, and he has conducted it some 400 times all over the country, including at the City Opera in New York City from which it was broadcast on PBS’ “Great Performances.”

While I don’t have exact attendance figures, it sure seems like houses were very good, even if the Sunday performance was a little under-attended because of Mother’s Day. One MSO player even commented that it was such a pleasure to play before a big and appreciative audience. So much for the terrific commercial success of closing out the season.

So artistically, how did the MSO do?

Well as you will see below, the critics, including The Ear, are pretty much unanimous in their judgments: the all-Gershwin concert was great artistic success for the MSO and DeMain as well as for the soloists and Madison Symphony Chorus.

How could it be otherwise?

That’s why Venezuelan-born and –trained superstar maestro Gustavo Dudamel (below) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic did a Hi-Def international satellite broadcast of Gershwin. Why Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony did one. Why Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic did an all-Gershwin broadcast for New Year’s Eve on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center.” And it also why the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under Andrew Sewell, opened this past season with Gershwin’s  “Rhapsody in Blue” with the young Russian virtuoso pianist Ilya Yakushev as the soloist.

So here is how the MSO’s all-Gershwin fete sounded to The Ear.

The orchestra and Madison Symphony Chorus performed superbly and tightly and with all the tonal color and dance-like, bluesy rhythms that Gershwin demands, right down to the French taxi horns and Cuban percussion. They sounded balanced with convincing dynamics and a big sound.

The soloists were, for the most part, terrific and absolutely first-rate. DeMain knows how to pick singers, and they brought off the authentic Gershwin sound with infectious conviction. This music left you pleased, happy and satisfied. George Gershwin’s music seems one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, can agree on these days.

I guess that’s good.

The first half of the concert was devoted to the popular shorter pieces: the “Cuban” Overture, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” The entire second half was devoted to an extremely well-constructed concert version, by orchestrator and arranger Richard Russell Bennett (below), of “Porgy and Bess” that reduced the four-hour opera to 40 minutes.

The singers, soprano Laquita Mitchell (below top) and baritone Michael Redding (below bottom), both did an outstanding job with the 40-minute concert version of the 4-hour opera “Porgy and Bess.” Redding especially brought out the characters of the roles he sang. He projected right off the stage and was rewarded with loud cheers from the audience.

My biggest disappointment – and it wasn’t all that big– came in the “Rhapsody in Blue.” Dressed fittingly in a bright blue gown, pianist Martina Filjak (below) played the Rhapsody well. She sure has chops, but great interpretations require more than great chops. I found her technique too prominent. She seemed to bang it out at times when it could have used a subtler, softer and more seductive approach. This Gershwin work is more French than Russian, more Ravel than Rachmaninoff. She should listen to Oscar Levant’s old recording.

But what I am really left with is how my overall impression of Gershwin, to whom I previously had paid only passing attention, took shape.

I loved the Gershwin concert while I was in it. But as soon as I left it, I found the music did not stick with me except for some tunes and some lyrics. And it did not make me ask questions or leave me wanting more.

And that, in turn, tells me why Gershwin is so popular.

Gershwin (below), who died prematurely of a brain tumor at 38, was clearly a Tin Pan Alley composer. He composed some dozen Broadway musicals before he even took up writing music for the concert hall. And that experience shows.

There is an ease and naturalness about listening to a Gershwin tune. When the famous Burton Lane song asks “I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?” who could possibly answer “Well, I don’t.” Gershwin’s songs are irresistible. They watch over you.

But if I compare the “Rhapsody in Blue” to, say, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 or Schumann’s Piano Concerto or Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3, I have no problem knowing which one I would and wouldn’t want to hear repeatedly, which one lacks development and depth, and which one has them.

The “Rhapsody in Blue” is engaging and exciting while it lasts, but then it is over. On the other hand, the other more substantial works may not be as easily digestible, but their nourishment is more sustaining and they continue to yield up insights on repeated hearings.

It’s not that Gershwin is a crossover or superficial composer, even though he is used in a lot of ads. As DeMain explained in his illuminating comments before the performances, Gershwin does indeed define an identifiably American sound. But let’s be honest:  Gershwin’s American sound is closer to song masters George M. Cohan, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern than to composers Charles Ives and Aaron Copland.

You can take Gershwin (below) out of Broadway. But, like the music of Leonard Bernstein – a Gershwin champion and DeMain mentor whose greatest and most beloved is theater music from “West Wide Story” and “Candide” – you can’t take Broadway out of Gershwin. And Broadway is nothing, if not popular.

Little wonder that we remember “An American in Paris” from Gene Kelly’s Hollywood choreography. And little wonder that even “Porgy and Bess,” a genuinely sincere attempt at serious concert music, got treated this last year to a controversial ADD makeover for today’s Broadway.

This love of Gershwin is here to stay.

What did others think?

Here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:

Here is a Lindsay Christians’ review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine and his blog “Classically Speaking”:

Here is a review by Bill Wineke for WISC-TV and

Classical music datebook: An all-Gershwin concert closes out the Madison Symphony Orchestra season this weekend. Plus, early vocal music by Eliza’s Toyes and “revolutionary” vocal music by the Madison Youth Choirs will be performed.

May 9, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

After the last three weeks, which were super busy with concerts, it is refreshing to have a relative breather leading into Mother’s Day this Sunday.

It’s happening later than usual, but the big MUST-HEAR event this week is that the Madison Symphony Orchestra is closing out is current season this coming weekend.

The program is an appealing all-Gershwin program – a natural fit for MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in photo by James Gill), who won a Grammy for his authentic production of the opera “Porgy and Bess.” He has since conducted it over 400 times, including a one show that was broadcast nationwide on PBS’ “Great Performances.”

Excerpts of “Porgy and Bess’ with will performed with singers soprano Laquita Mitchell (below) and baritone Michael Redding in solo roles. Also included are “An American in Paris,” the “Cuban” Overture and the evergreen “Rhapsody in Blue” with pianist Martina Filjak. The Madison Symphony Chorus, under Beverly Taylor, will also perform.

Always popular, the music of George Gershwin (below) is undergoing a major revival, it seems to The Ear. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opened this past season with the “Rhapsody in Blue.” Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic did a Gershwin concert for HD satellite broadcast.  Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony also did a Gershwin concert.

Some of the best commentary and analysis I’ve ever heard about the music of Gershwin came on Wisconsin Public Radio on Monday. That is when DeMain appeared with host Norman Gilliland on The Midday (noon to 1 p.m.).

DeMain sat at the studio keyboard and played snippets and sang – not a voice to win the Met auditions but quite serviceable — as he demonstrated all sorts of things. He showed how carefully Gershwin structured “Porgy and Bess.” He demonstrated why Gershwin (below) is as much a classical composer as he is a jazz, popular or crossover composer. He explained how an orchestra “swings” a rhythm. He talked about various piano soloists, including Leonard Bernstein, who wrongly think they can “improve” the “Rhapsody in Blue” by taking liberties with the notes, rhythm and tempi. He showed how Gershwin loved and incorporated the music of J.S. Bach. And his wit and good humor matched his deep knowledge and extensive first-hand experience.

It was a brilliant and accessible, amiable and witty discussion that all Gershwin fans, and especially non-Gershwin fans, would be smart to listen to. Hands down, it was the best introduction to Gershwin that The Ear has ever heard.

When I last looked for  the interview-demonstration, it was not yet posted in WPR’s Audio Archives. But I suspect it will be shortly. So here it s a link:

In the meantime, the all-Gershwin concerts will be held in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $13.50 to $78.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, visit:

For program notes by J. Michael Allsen, visit:


Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, features pianists Sonya Clark and Leo Van Asten who will perform music for piano-four hands by Dvorak, Ginastera, Schubert, Brahms and Van Asten. For information, call 608 233-9774 or visit


At 7:30 p.m. in the downtown historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue (below) in James Madison Park, 302 East Gorham Street, the local early music, period instrument and vocal ensemble Eliza’s Toyes and guests will be performing rarely heard music composed by Heinrich Schütz, Johann Schein, and Samuel Scheidt.

The concert, titled “The three Sch’s: Music By Schütz, Schein, and Scheidt,” includes a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m. Admission is $10 at the door.

The program by Eliza’s Toyes (below) will showcase some of their best works, both sacred and secular. Highlights include Scheidt’s most somber setting of “Miserere mei Deus” for soprano and 5 low voices, and his uplifting setting of Psalm 148 in German “Lobet, ihr Himmel den Herren”; Schein’s motet “Ach Herr, ach meiner schone”, and a very funny song from his 1626 collection “Studentenschmaus”; and selections of Schütz’s rarely heard Italian madrigals, particularly “Vasto Mar” for 8 voices.

Besides musicians from the regular ensemble, special guests viol player Eric Miller (belowl) and Lawrence Conservatory faculty organist Kathrine Handford will be joining in the music making.

At 7 p.m. in the same venue, there will be a pre-concert lecture titled “Singing the Reformation”, by Erin Lambert, A.W. Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Fellow in History and a Ph.D. candidate in early modern European history at UW-Madison.

Here are some program notes from director and performing member of Eliza’s Toyes, Jerry Hui:

“Schütz, among the three featured composers, received the most household recognition because his career spanned across several countries. However, they all were regarded highly. Singled out by the 17th-century German composer/theorist Wolfgang Caspar Printz as the best German composers in his book “Historische Beschreibung” (1690), they were important in cultivating a distinctly German musical style, and their work would influence generations of composers to come —from J.S. Bach in later Baroque period, to Brahms in the Romantic period, and even to Hugo Distler of the 20th century.”

Adds Hui (below): “Much of these composers’ music, driven strongly by modal counterpoint but also showing influence of Baroque harmonic progression, are not heard as frequently as they should. Perhaps this is because many other Baroque composers — such as Bach and Sweelinck — worked around that time period wrote in a style that is more distinguishable from what is considered the Renaissance period. Also, the vocal range demanded by these composers from the choir often differs from the standard setup of a four-part choir, especially in requiring more low altos or high tenors.”

For more information about the program and Eliza’s Toyes, visit:


From 12:30 to 2 p.m. “Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen” closes out its current season with pianist Raffi Basalyan (below) in Brittingham Gallery Number III at the Chazen Museum of Art, 759 University Ave. This will be his fourth appearance on “Sunday Afternoon Live.”

The program includes Baghdassarian’s Prelude in B minor; Bach/Busoni: Two Chorale Preludes; Liszt’s Transcendental Etude #10 in F minor and “Mephisto Waltz”; and Rachmaninoff’s “Polka de WR” and Sonata No. 2, Op. 36.

 As usual, the concert will be broadcast live by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Members of the Chazen Museum of Art or Wisconsin Public Radio can call ahead and reserve seats for Sunday Afternoon Live performances. Seating is limited. All reservations must be made Monday through Friday before the concert and claimed by 12:20 p.m. on the day of the performance. For more information or to learn how to become a museum member, contact the Chazen Museum at (608) 263-2246.

A reception will follow the performance with treats, coffee, and tea donated by local businesses. We would like to thank our generous donors, Fresh Madison Market, Steep & Brew, and Coffee Bytes. A free docent-led tour in the Chazen galleries begins every Sunday at 2 p.m.

On Sunday, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area Performing Arts Center (below) at 2100 Bristol Street, in Middleton High School, the Madison Youth Choirs will perform their spring concert series, entitled Revolution!

These concerts focus on the connections between music and social change. Featuring music from “revolutionary” composers along with compositions from the Civil Rights movement, Revolutionary War, anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and the Estonian “singing revolution.”

Selections by Brahms, Billings, Britten, Persichetti, Vittoria, Handel, and more will be featured.

Here is the schedule of performers and programs:

2 p.m.: three boychoirs (Purcell, Britten, Holst) and three girlchoirs (Choraliers, Con Gioia, Capriccio)

7 p.m.: three high school ensembles (Cantilena, Cantabile, Ragazzi)

Tickets are $9 plus a processing fee in advance or $12 at the door. Children 7 and under are free.

About Madison Youth Choirs (MYC): According to the organization, “Madison Youth Choirs strives to create a community of young musicians dedicated to musical excellence through which we inspire enjoyment, enhance education, and nurture personal, musical, and social development, by the study and performance of high-quality and diverse choral literature. To this end, we focus on the process and provide singers a rich rehearsal experience where thoughtful discussion and activities lead to larger connections and a music education that becomes a springboard for understanding the world.”

For more information, visit:

Classical music review: Madison Symphony Orchestra’s and Madison Opera’s maestro John DeMain triumphs in Jerome Kern’s “Showboat” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

February 16, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Some people act as if it is easy to make it big in Madison but then fall flat or fail in a bigger city or on a bigger stage.

But that is certainly not the case for John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill), the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera who is now in his 18th season in Madison.

Currently, DeMain — who guests conducts a lot of opera productions all around the US  — is celebrating his latest success: A triumphant production of Jerome Kern’s “Showboat” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Photos below are by Robert Kusel for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.)

DeMain also did an acclaimed production of “Showboat” in San Francisco.

Now, The Ear – who loves Kern’s tunes (“Ol’ Man River” and “We Could Make Believe”) and other music from the show — tends to think of “Showboat” as a Broadway musical.

But apparently The Ear is wrong.

A lot of other more knowledgeable critics and historians consider “Showboat” a cross between traditional opera and Broadway theater — maybe an American form of operetta? — much like George Gershwin’sPorgy and Bess,” which is coincidentally one of the high points of DeMain’s career.

In 1976 DeMain won Grammy and Grand Prix du Disque awards for his recording of “Porgy and Bess” as well as a Tony award, and then an Emmy award years later when he performed it on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center.” He also won Leonard Bernstein’s outspoken admiration for his “Porgy and Bess” production.

And DeMain will close out the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s current season in mid-May with an all-Gershwin concert that includes soprano Laquita Williams (below), one of the stars of “Showboat,” in excerpts from “Porgy and Bess.” For more information, visit:

DeMain’s production of “Showboat” – he is the music director — opened last weekend in Chicago to great reviews, many of which are linked to below.

The show runs through March 17.

Maybe some readers can make it down to Chicago to see and hear it.

But even if you can’t, we can all take pride in the achievement of this now Native Son and his conquest of the Windy City.

And to think we hear him in Madison more often than they do! Are we lucky or what?

Here is one review that is a rave:

Here is a review of the Chicago Tribune:

And another rave from the competing Chicago Sun-Times that talks of the show as a hybrid of opera and Broadway musical that DeMain is long familiar with:

Another review from the site Chicago Theatre Addict:

And another rave with a lot of photos:

For some background about the production here is a story:,0,1139328.column

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