Wineke: John DeMain ends year 25 with extravaganza

Wineke: John DeMain ends year 25 with extravaganza

The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s final concert of the season promised to be spectacular and it more than delivered.

Conductor John DeMain decided to end his 25th season with the MSO by presenting Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, a massive work which, in this setting, included more than 500 singers and instrumental musicians taking the Overture Center stage. Performances were staged Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Among them were eight professional soloists, the Overture Organ, two harps, the University of Wisconsin Choral Union, the Madison Choral Union, the Madison Symphony Chorus and the Madison Youth Choirs.

That stage was packed. The kids had to use a portable riser located behind the harps; it looked a little bit like a cage. The stage was so packed that, when DeMain came to the podium, he had virtually to weave his way through musicians.

Before the concert, I was prepared to be a bit snarky. I mean, do you really need 500 musicians just to make a splash?

By concert’s end I realized that this was one of the most beautiful musical expressions I’ve ever encountered and realized, too, that it was an experience I most likely will never enjoy again in my lifetime.

Also, the concert reminded me anew of just how good John DeMain is. A quarter century ago, he took over a fairly good symphony and then, year after year, kept making it better, bringing an incredible variety of mostly up and coming young musicians from all over the country to guest star, making a place for religious and community musicians to share his stage and making the orchestra an ongoing symbol of community pride.

At 75, he shows no indication he plans to slow down. He will conduct eight of the MSO’s nine concerts next year, beginning with one centered on “Love, Lust and Redemption,” September 27, 28 and 29.

But that will be then; this is now.

Friday night, DeMain was in charge of more than 500 musicians and if any of them had a note out of place, it wasn’t obvious to the audience. He even had trombones playing from the highest box seat enclosure.

The symphony has two movements. The first is a joyous hymn to the creator and the second is a more somber meditation based on Faust, the story of an intellectual who sold his soul to Satan in return for ultimate knowledge, but who is redeemed by two angels. It ends up on a pretty high note (remember the trombones way up there?) with all 500 musicians and singers belting it out.

The soloists were mezzo-sopranos Milena Kitic and Julie Miller, sopranos Alexandra Lobianco and Emily Birsan (who was also lead soprano in last week’s Madison Opera production of “Rusalka”) and Emily Pogorelc, tenor Clay Hilley, bass baritone Morris Robinson and baritone Michael Redding.

One mark of their ability is that, singing solo, they had to project above the accompaniment of hundreds of singers and instruments.

On the other hand, some of the most beautiful music of the concert came as concertmaster Naha Greenholtz played brief solos as the entire chorus sang.

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