Come Saturday evening, John Demain will walk onto the stage of the Oscar Mayer Theater to conduct the first concert of his tenure as the new music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The event will mark a significant departure from the past, not only by having a new person at the helm, but perhaps more importantly by bringing new musical ideas to local audiences at the same time as new faces appear in the orchestra's personnel.
Demain and the various section principals have been conducting auditions almost non-stop during recent weeks, assessing the talents of players both old and new and developing seatings that will suit the new director's music-artistic vision of what the MSO should become. Auditions are by nature a trying experience; they confront long-established hierarchies in each section of the orchestra, where there is usually some pride of position based on one's reputation. This uncertainty is heightened by using a screen to mask the player's identity. But as Demain told me, he "was impressed by the high level of people from outlying areas. Although there was some resistance of the idea of playing behind a screen, the technique proved very successful. The principals were very cooperative, and we think we found good replacements for people who have retired or left for other reasons."
Programming offers an arguably even greater contrast than changes in personnel for the MSO. The first concert features music by Mozart, Bernstein, and Mahler. It is unusual in several ways. There is no visiting soloist, for example. "We hope to place more emphasis than in the past on the orchestra itself," Demain says, "as we work to expand the range of our programs and repertory. There is much great orchestral music that is too seldom heard." This first concert is unified by ideas of delicacy, fine detail, and intimacy. There is also an element of nostalgia and remembrance for Demain personally. "Mozart's Ave verum corpus takes me back to my beginnings as a boy soprano. If I were to find myself in the awful position of having only one piece of music to hear, this would be it."
In some ways even more intensely personal, Demain wants this performance of Bernstein's Chichester Psalms to serve as his memorial to the composer. "Lenny was a very profound influence in my life. I got a tremendous boost from his recognition that I knew my scores and knew how to rehearse such difficult music as his musical Trouble in Tahiti or the serious opera Quiet Place. Unable to take part in memorials in New York at the time of Bernstein's death, Demain looks to the combination of disparate elements in the Chichester Psalms to epitomize his reverence and gratitude for the twin legacies of the man and the music.
Mahler has not been heard here in a goodly while. Demain's approach to the Symphony No. 1 will be to use chamber-music-like intimacy the score affords in sections scored for very few instruments of the augmented orchestra to achieve a background of gentleness and transparency, "so that when we come to the tutti with the full orchestra, the full poignancy of the massive sound will contrast with the reverance, inner longing, and pain of the funeral music."
What this program promises is a rededication of our growing orchestral institution to higher quality, involving a greater focus on strictly musical ideas and less reliance on outside talent. I have a strong sense that this is exactly the direction we need to go, and rapidly mounting confidence that Demain will quickly become the focus, together with his players, of a vitally renewed cultural resource for the Madison area and beyond.
Isthmus, September, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson