When the house lights go down Saturday evening at the Oscar Mayer Theater, music director John DeMain will mount the podium and launch the Madison Symphony Orchestra's fifth season under his leadership. The occasion will also mark the MSO's salute to Wisconsin's Sesquicentennial. "It's a gala-style program," DeMain says, "opening with Schumann's Manfred overture, written in 1848, the year Wisconsin joined the Union, and winding up with the world premiere of Michael Torke's Jasper, commissioned jointly by the Milwaukee and Madison Symphony Orchestras. In between, we have the fast-rising star Denyce Graves in arias from Carmen by Bizet and Samson et Dalila by St. Saëns, as well as additional works."
Gala concerts are as a rule showcase events, designed to let soloists and orchestra members strut their stuff a bit before an audience that's ready to have a rousing good time. Though there's no major symphony on this program and the focus is on displaying the performers' talents, there is plenty of solid musical substance here. Based on other Torke works I've heard and DeMain's comments about the new score, Jasper will reflect the multifaceted nature of jasper the mineral, offering a cascade of gleaming sparks, the interplay of many musical lights. And while the Carmen arias will reveal the excitement and defiant passion of that opera's title character, it's hard to imagine an audience not melting under the extraordinary beauty of Dalila's "Amour, viens aider" and "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix," two of the most seductively appealing lyrical moments in all of opera.
Graves has sung both Carmen and Samson at the Met and elsewhere, to great critical acclaim. A native of Washington, DC, her star has risen with amazing speed. She is certainly on the move, as I discovered when I reached her cell phone as she sped by car from a gala concert in to a record signing in Orlando, Florida. Asked what her hopes and aspirations are, Graves laughs and says, "As exciting as it is, I want more than just opera, not that that isn't wonderful. I'm looking forward to all sorts of less glamorous but also rewarding things, for instance a new house and at some point becoming a mother. I've learned that you have to go for what you want, to take full responsibility right from the start, so that's what I'm doing."
Graves studied singing in Germany, got an undergraduate degree from Oberlin and did her graduate studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston. She then auditioned for the Houston Grand Opera, where DeMain was artistic director, and was hired on the spot. Since then she's been on the fast track in opera, with three roles at the Met to her credit plus recitals, recordings and television appearances. She sounds secure and confident, and, I would say, completely down to earth. "My credo," she says, "is that absolutely everything should be an acclaimation of who you are and what you want to be; everything you do or touch must reflect this commitment."
Such ideas certainly mesh well with DeMain's own philosophy. The MSO has existed for half of Wisconsin's 150 years. Since taking the helm in 1994, DeMain has steadily moved toward ambitious goals for the orchestra, for the local community and for himself personally. It seems to me the beginning transitional phase is now complete, and the course ahead is steady growth within the local scene's parameters. "My approach has not been to produce results by being dictatorial," he says. "Rather, we have a lot of good musicians here, so the orchestra and I have worked together to let the collective intelligence emerge. I expect a lot from them, and they strive to meet that expectation. That sets me free to express my own views of any given work, and when this is received well by an audience that understands what's we're doing, the result is very satisfying."
The remainder of the schedule for the season provides ample opportunity to develop this approach further. One of the key organizing principles for this season is a retrospective of masterpieces from the first half of the 20th century, which includes on the October program continuing the MSO's Mahler cycle with the 5th Symphony, an extraordinarily demanding work that is technically and musically beyond what the ensemble could have undertaken not so long ago. The retrospective survey will be extended and complemented by a collaboration with the Madison Art Center in a chamber-music and art lecture series.
All in all, the direction is forward-looking and progressive, oriented toward greater enrichment of the area's cultural life. The upbeat, glittering character of the opening concert, it seems to me, signals an ongoing celebration of expanding potentials in our musical life, promising still greater rewards. Continuing strong support for the MSO suggests that the community is going hand-in-hand with this commitment.
Isthmus, September, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson