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The Madison Symphony Orchestra's 2001-02 Season

When the Madison Symphony Orchestra launches its 2001-02 season at the Oscar Mayer Theatre this weekend, it should be buoyed by record subscription rates, bucking what appears to be a downward slide in support for midsized arts organizations elsewhere in the country.

One reason for this exceptional situation is almost certainly maestro John DeMain's programming philosophy, which seeks to avoid mediocrity, he says, "by sharing with the audience the excitement we as musicians are experiencing, offering the immediacy of emotional contact with great masterworks, undertaking ever more challenging repertory and drawing sustenance from the effort to make our musical lives as rich as possible right now." The eight subscription concert pairs planned for this season amply demonstrate this approach.

Conductors for the season include DeMain, who will preside over five of the eight programs, plus Patrick Flynn, Louis Salemno and Beverly Taylor. Major soloists, including both well-known superstars and fast-rising newcomers, will join the MSO for each of the concerts. Newcomers include the Eroica Trio, who will perform Beethoven's Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 56 on Sept. 22 and 23, and cellist Amanda Forsyth, who will play the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello with star violinist Pinchas Zukerman on October 13 and 14. Pianist Cecile Licad, resuming an acclaimed earlier career, returns to Madison on Nov. 3 and 4 to play the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2.

For an all-Gershwin program on Feb. 2 and 3, the excellent pianist Leon Bates will play Rhapsody in Blue, followed by selections from Porgy and Bess with soprano Marquita Lister and bass-baritone Alvy Powell, both of whom will star in the New York City Opera's revival of Porgy, conducted by DeMain later in the season. A true master of the piano, Garrick Ohlsson appears on Feb. 16 and 17 in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2.

The star lineups continue with cellist Janos Starker playing the Haydn Concerto in D Major on March 23 and 24, and soprano Patricia Racette, mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura, tenor Scott Piper and baritone Kyle Ketelsen performing in Verdi's monumental Requiem on April 27 and 28.

Major symphonic repertory includes Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 this weekend, Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses in October, Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in November, Gershwin's An American in Paris in early February, Rouse's Rapture and Debussy's La Mer in mid-February, and Mahler's titanic Symphony No. 6 in March. From the players' point of view, each of these works represents a significant technical and musical challenge. DeMain sees this as an ongoing line of development for the orchestra: "We want our concerts to be events, so that when we move to the increased comfort and better acoustics of the Overture Center, both musicians and audiences will feel the lift, hearing every composer with new ears."

Speaking of lift, this seems an appropriate term for the MSO's recent history. As MSO executive director Richard Mackie notes, increasingly the audiences do not just applaud -- they cheer the performances. He's right, and this has to be gratifying for the musicians, as well as confirming the heart of DeMain's guiding artistic philosophy.

Such enthusiasm, Mackie believes, stems from the MSO's dedication to quality combined with DeMain's programming initiatives. This in turn would explain a significant upturn in subscription rates for both new and returning series tickets. As of last week, the MSO had 3,044 subscribers for the new season, a 5.4% increase over last season. In addition, the renewal rate for subscribers who were new last season is 43%, above the national industry average.

According to Mackie, the best seats for Saturday evening performances are already sold out. "We're finding that a number of long-time Saturday subscribers are moving to Sunday afternoon because they can get better seat location."

If this keeps up, the MSO may even run out of tickets to sell. In the meantime, there will be much to savor.

Isthmus, September, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson

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