25 seasons and counting with conductor John DeMain

Coming season for Madison Symphony, Opera detailed
25 seasons and counting with conductor John DeMain
Photo by Peter Rodgers

It was a scant five years ago that John DeMain, music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Madison Opera celebrated the onset of his 20th season in those positions. Some fans of these local cultural institutions wondered then how many more years would DeMain agree to remain at the helm of both. DeMain said at the time that he would stay as long as the respective boards for the symphony and opera — and their audiences — would have him.

I have spent much of the last four and a half years interviewing DeMain and other principal figures in his life for a biography of him. With the manuscript nearly finished, and scheduled to be published by University of Wisconsin Press in 2019, the experience has given me rich insight into DeMain’s 25th concert season starting this month.

This MSO season will be full of references to works and performers that have made DeMain’s quarter-century on the podium so memorable.

Just as our beloved Green Bay Packers have a pre-season, so does DeMain and the MSO. A gala event on Sept. 21 will include the first part of a video tribute to DeMain’s career. The second part of the video, produced by Anders Yocum and Wisconsin Public Television, will be shown prior to each of the Sept. 28-30 concerts.

The gala will also feature a performance by the piano-playing twins Christina and Michelle Naughton of Madison, who have been wowing audiences around the world for some time now.

The opening concerts feature a nod to the current century, with Jennifer Higdon’s “Fanfare Ritmico,” DeMain’s own arrangement of movements from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and the return of one the greatest of all pianists, Emmanuel Ax. This stands as a demonstration of how DeMain, and his orchestra and Overture Hall, have been able to attract many of the greatest soloists in the world. And like Ax, they usually come back for more.

DeMain, because he is in high demand internationally, will be absent for the month of October. This time it is in Barcelona, Spain, where he will conduct “Candide” as part of the worldwide celebrations of American composer Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday.

In Madison, MSO will present three Bernstein tribute concerts on Nov. 9, 10 and 11. The orchestra will play the overture to “Candide,” excerpts from “On the Town,” and the Symphony No. 2, “Age of Anxiety,” the latter being a piano concerto in disguise, with Christopher Taylor as the soloist. The final work, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, is there because it was the final work “Lenny” conducted.

DeMain and Bernstein shared a deep connection over the final 10 years or so of Bernstein’s life. Bernstein was deeply impressed with DeMain’s conducting of “Porgy and Bess,” which DeMain did in 1975 at the age of 32, and won a Grammy for the recording. “I’ve waited 40 years to hear ‘Porgy’ done like that,” Bernstein said, according to DeMain. “Now I don’t have to conduct it.”

Subsequently, Bernstein personally selected DeMain to conduct performances of the 1980 revival of “West Side Story,” and he did more than 80 shows.

Madison Opera will also open its season with performances on Nov. 2 and 4 of the famous one-act operas “Cavelleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” DeMain may get to hear them, but he will miss the rehearsals. Joseph Mechavich returns as guest conductor.

The “Madison Symphony Christmas” has grown into one of the great traditions under DeMain. He insisted from his first season that this would be a Christmas concert, not a “holiday” event. It remains the most in demand show for MSO and all three performances (November 30 and December 1-2 this year), usually sell out. The event at Overture Hall will once again include the Madison Youth Choirs and the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir.

A believer in finding ways to excite new listeners, DeMain is bringing back “Beyond the Score,” the multi-media event that combines actors, video, excerpts and a full performance of a great masterpiece. On Jan. 20, 2019, the spotlight is on Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, better known as “The Italian,” with the involvement of actors from American Players Theatre.

On Feb. 8 and 10, DeMain officially conducts Madison Opera in his silver anniversary season in Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” Since conducting “West Side Story” in 1980, DeMain has maintained a reputation as a distinguished conductor of Sondheim’s later works.

Feb. 15-17, DeMain pays tribute to more recent music, as well as another musical icon whose reputation outside of Madison certainly eclipses his local fame: John Harbison, who turns 80 this December. DeMain will conduct his delightful “The Most Often Used Chords.” (This writer heard the world premiere of this piece played by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra nearly 25 years ago.) The bigger works are the Brahms “Violin Concerto” with James Ehnes — another towering international star and local favorite. Also on the program, Ravel’s famous arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

We are usually treated to soloists from within the MSO in September, but this season that will happen at the March 8-10 concerts as concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, clarinetist JJ Koh and tuba player Joshua Biere are featured.

The April 12-14 concerts will be marked by the debut of a pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. His repertoire choices are exquisite: “Piano Concerto in G” by Ravel and Richard Strauss’s rarely heard “Burleske.”

Then it’s back to Madison Opera on April 26 and 28 for Dvorak’s atmospheric and enchanting “Russalka.” All of the season’s official indoor activities close with Mahler’s massive “Symphony No. 8,” subtitled “Symphony of a Thousand.” DeMain’s version will top 500 singers and players. He conducted Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1” on his very first program in 1994, and over the years performed all nine of the composer’s completed symphonies. Few works could sum up two and half decades of growth, success and splendor than this one.

And as for how much longer DeMain will stay, well, this is the MSO’s 93rd season. It doesn’t seem likely the board or Overture Hall audiences would mind if he hung around for at least another seven years.

Greg Hettmansberger jazz, opera and classical music for madisonmagazine.com.