Meet the man behind the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the past 25 years

DeMain celebrates 25 years as music director
Meet the man behind the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the past 25 years
Darren Hauck
John DeMain

John DeMain, music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Madison Opera for the past 25 years, shared many cups of coffee and stories with Madison Magazine contributor Greg Hettmansberger, who is collaborating with DeMain on the musician’s biography. Their conversations unveiled DeMain’s personal musings on his legacy, which he hopes reaches beyond his title as maestro.

Like many classical music lovers in Madison, I knew the broad outlines of John DeMain’s career: Eighteen years at Houston Grand Opera, highlighted by a Grammy for his conducting of “Porgy and Bess;” conductor for world premieres of Leonard Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place” and John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” among others; then the surprising move he made in 1994 to become the fourth director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra – one of the largest regional orchestras, but small compared to bigger U.S. cities.

It was September 2013 when Madison Magazine published my feature story detailing the impending celebrations of John DeMain’s 20th anniversary season as music director of Madison Symphony and artistic director of Madison Opera. As soon as the article was in print, I thought about how much more I could have written.

It’s been nearly six years, and Madisonians have not grasped the totality of what DeMain has accomplished — and is accomplishing. He has raised the profiles of both the Madison Symphony and Madison Opera to models of regional excellence.Meet the man behind the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the past 25 years

He has been a driving force behind such events and ensembles as Madison’s Opera in the Park; The Final Forte that concludes the televised Bolz Young Artists competition; the Rhapsodie Quartet, the four sets of concerts that engage students from kindergarten through high school; and many others. These events were not solely the result of DeMain’s efforts, but in all of them he has been a pivotal figure.

“I’m absolutely a believer that we have got to be out in the community,” DeMain says. “That’s our reason for being here.”

Twenty-five years later, DeMain’s not done yet. He started studying piano at age 6 and, by 14, had conducted a professional orchestra. But for the past quarter century, he has applied his talents in Madison, where he sees an opportunity to play a role beyond that of a conductor.
There’s more to the story, and more to the maestro, than meets the eye.

A Conductor in the Making

In late 2013, I was scheduled to have lunch with DeMain to discuss Madison Opera’s season-closing production of “Dead Man Walking” in the spring of 2014. The interview was much the same as the previous handful of times we had talked at length. Regardless of where the topic began, DeMain would usually work in some wonderful tidbits that piqued my curiosity. Naturally, I didn’t hesitate to pop the question.

“Have you ever considered having your biography written?”

“No,” he said. “But my wife has!”

DeMain quickly elaborated. He had given it some thought, but would not proceed unless the biography included his roots in musical theater and fascination with popular culture instilled in him at an early age. He didn’t want to be portrayed as “just” an orchestral or opera conductor, no matter how accomplished. He wants to be known as an American musician who became a conductor. I assured him that – if he would favor me with the task – I would tell his larger story.

We started at the beginning. He was born in Youngstown, Ohio, on Jan. 11, 1944. His father was a steel worker and his mother was a travel agent.Meet the man behind the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the past 25 years

By age 6, DeMain was displaying a level of talent that led some to call him a piano prodigy. But it was talent for singing that earned him the lead in “Amahl and the Night Visitors” as a 9-year-old. It didn’t hurt that at the audition he accompanied himself on piano. Teachers asked him to play “Rock Around the Clock,” made famous by Bill Haley and His Comets, to entertain the class, and by the age of 14 he conducted a pit orchestra of professional musicians in “Brigadoon.”

DeMain attended a Catholic school from the third grade on and was involved in children’s theater. With the adults at The Youngstown Playhouse, DeMain acted and sang lead roles.

The Playhouse is a community theater that has produced national-caliber talent for more than 90 years. And through the theater, DeMain had ample opportunities to nourish his plethora of gifts as a performer. In fact, he spread himself so thin that his initial promise as a piano prodigy was diminished between the ages of 8 and 18. His piano professor of choice at The Juilliard School accepted him to study only on a probationary basis.

His boy soprano voice eventually matured into “nothing special,” he says. Nevertheless, he still enjoys singing with others occasionally and keeps his piano chops by practicing.

Sharing His Life

We officially agreed to begin the interview process for his biography shortly after New Year’s Day in 2014. We met every couple weeks or so, and I found myself getting to know DeMain – in between sips of coffee – as a man with interests outside the world of music.

DeMain met his future wife Barbara Dittman in Houston in May 1991. She had started a music consultancy business in Germany and was involved in sorting out contract rights for a new version of a work by Astor Piazzolla that Houston Grand Opera was co-producing.

She and DeMain became well acquainted during the 30-mile rides to and from rehearsals – so much that she agreed to attend the Aspen Music Festival, where DeMain was working, that August. She arrived in Aspen on Aug. 10 – by Aug. 23 she was Mrs. DeMain. In the time it took Mozart to write a symphony, the couple had evolved from good friends to husband and wife.Meet the man behind the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the past 25 years

Following their whirlwind elopement, Barbara returned to Houston in September with plans for a big church wedding on Nov. 1. Some 450 people – a who’s who of the Houston arts scene – were in place for the 3 p.m. exchange of vows. They all waited. And waited.

As Barbara recalled, the delay was due to DeMain being unable to find his patent leather shoes. Only after searching the house did he remember leaving them at the Houston Grand Opera facilities  – where he had opened “La Bohème” the night before.

More than a quarter century later, DeMain doesn’t remember the incident.

“John!” Barbara exclaims. “I can’t believe you’ve forgotten that.”Meet the man behind the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the past 25 years

Well,” she says, turning to me, “it wasn’t the last time he would be late for something. Have I told you about how he got lost in a German opera house at intermission, with [opera singer Plácido] Domingo waiting on stage for him to conduct?”

We were only a few months into interviews for the book when I realized the DeMains weren’t treating me as a critic or even writer/acquaintance. I felt like a family friend with whom they were comfortable. That was certainly the case for Max, their Westie, who would greet me with an explosion of white fur if the gate to the DeMains’ family room was ajar when I arrived.

What Frankfurt Lost, Houston and Madison Gained

Together we tried to sort out a series of events that unfolded in the early 1970s. After finishing graduate school in 1968, DeMain became involved in a few notable ventures, but had yet to experience his first big break. Both of us were frantically searching online for dates when DeMain suddenly said, “Wait. I think that was after my big trip to Europe with my father.”

“What trip to Europe?” I asked.

DeMain took his recently retired father on a six-week trip through Europe – during which, he recalled, “I almost got hired by Frankfurt Opera.” Meet the man behind the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the past 25 years

My jaw dropped halfway to the dining room table. I said, “We’ve been talking for over two years and this is the first I’ve heard of this?”

Had DeMain stayed in Frankfurt, orchestra music lovers in Houston, Madison and in many other places in America, Europe and Australia might never have experienced DeMain’s artistry. He knew that it was a high risk/high reward proposition: He might have had a steady but unspectacular career in European houses, but he would have returned to the U.S. with no more cache than when he had first gone overseas.

As DeMain and I pieced together the memorable moments of his life and career – eventually submitting chapter drafts to his publisher, University Wisconsin Press – a new dynamic emerged. Meet the man behind the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the past 25 years

With all of DeMain’s success at Houston Grand Opera, he says he wanted a symphony orchestra position. He told fellow musicians that the reason was that “Gustav Mahler never wrote an opera.” That’s shorthand for saying there was so much non-operatic music that interested him.

Ironically, the more success he had in opera, the less likely it seemed he would ever find such a position; orchestra boards and managers stubbornly pigeon-holed conductors who “only” conducted opera.

Yet DeMain couldn’t see himself conducting just any orchestra in any city – he was in search of a challenge over a prestigious title. Once asked by a friend why he had taken a particular job, DeMain replied, “Because I thought I could make a difference.”

DeMain’s Impact

I can’t imagine anyone in Madison arguing that DeMain hasn’t made a difference here. It is one thing to enumerate the obvious changes DeMain has implemented since his arrival in 1994, such as giving audiences more opportunities to attend performances (eight annual concert programs are now performed three times instead of once) and bringing to those concerts many of the world’s best soloists.

But DeMain feels his greatest achievements pertain to his impact on the cultural life of the larger community. Meet the man behind the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the past 25 years

Perhaps the greatest single expression of DeMain’s influence has been with his annual “A Madison Symphony Christmas.” The 25th edition last December was as good as it gets: Madison Symphony itself joined by the Madison Symphony Chorus, two groups from the Madison Youth Choirs, the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir and two internationally famed singers, Cecilia Violetta Lopez and Kyle Ketelsen. (Ketelsen is a Sun Prairie resident who regularly sings at the Metropolitan Opera and in Europe’s great houses.)

When that Christmas concert ends with the audience sing-along, many in the audience join the players by donning Santa hats, likely none of which are longer than the one DeMain puts on. When he ends by wishing all of Madison a “peaceful and sane New Year,” I know better than most that he really means it.Meet the man behind the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the past 25 years

The book is in the editing process now, and yes, I miss our semi-regular chats. Fortunately I can find the DeMains at the Overture Center for the Arts, accepting the thanks of Madison’s music lovers for making this city their home – and regaling post-concert reception goers with tales of how they got here and why they stayed.

Greg Hettmansberger covers jazz, opera and classical music for By this time next year, his biography of John DeMain is due to be published by University of Wisconsin Press.