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John DeMain, Music Director

As the leading musical arts enterprise in the community, the Madison Symphony Orchestra made a giant leap of faith when it selected John DeMain as its new music director last summer. At risk were the steadily growing reputations of the orchestra's musicians, the continued growth of community support for the symphony, and indeed the opportunity for music lovers to depend on this institution for essential cultural nurture.

After an arduous selection process involving tryout concerts by three guest conductors in the 1993-94 season, DeMain, who had been highly successful with the Houston Opera, was enticed to move his family to Madison and take over the podium held for 32 years by Roland Johnson. In his very first appearance here, it was obvious that DeMain was of very high caliber. In fact, at the time I doubted he would get the offer, because I thought he would very likely shake things up too much after a largely successful decade for the MSO. I'm delighted to have been quite wrong. Though DeMain has rattled cages a certain amount, the results have been of remarkably high quality and more than worth the insecurities of the transition.

As the end of the first DeMain season approaches, we should pause briefly to consider what has transpired, reviewing what has been accomplished during this whirlwind year and what is planned not just for next year but well beyond, into the next century. A recent long conversation with DeMain clearly revealed that risk-taking is a component of the whole enterprise -- as will be evident in the season's final performances this weekend, featuring one of the most daunting of all symphonic works, Beethoven's Symphony No.9 (see sidebar).

There is a good deal more to being the music director than preparing and conducting the concerts themselves. From the beginning, DeMain insisted that his contract allow him to be involved in every facet of the symphony's renewal and revitalization processes. For example, he worked hard with the staff on the brochure that announced his first season here. "I felt it was important to focus on the music, on the repertory for our concerts," he says, "and to place less emphasis on the biographies of soloists and other participating artists."

Even more important was the issue of contracts for the musicians. "Negotiating a contract year-by-year is typical of community orchestras, whereas our three-year contracts, which I worked hard on behind the scenes, give the musicians a greater sense of professionalism. I wanted to make sure the musicians and management understood how important this was."

One provision of the contract enabled DeMain to implement a Saturday morning rehearsal. This meant that players accustomed to teaching that day had to rearrange their schedules, which was a pretty big pill to swallow. Another transition problem was that many leading players were also UW faculty, accustomed to bringing their better students into the orchestra and to receiving a modest fee for leading sectional rehearsals. Over the years this had led to a kind of fiefdom within the various sections. Such entrenched interests amounted to both managerial and artistic obstacles to the orchestra's further growth -- a situation DeMain was determined to change. "Almost overnight," DeMain says, "I abolished sectional rehearsals under section leaders. That's a high-school strategy, and you'd better be able to play your instrument better than that. I lead sectional rehearsals myself."

As soon as DeMain arrived in town, news quickly got out that he would be holding auditions and possibly reseating people. Furthermore the auditions would be done behind a screen to remove the factor of knowing whom he was hearing. Musicians would be bound to have misgivings about nervousness and playing up to snuff. "Naturally, the auditions were at first perceived as a threat," DeMain observes, "but they realized, as soon as they took part in it, that the process was fair. As performers ourselves, we know when a person is nervous and can allow the audition to go on a little longer so they get a chance to settle down. Of course, if they can't play, that is going to be revealed too. I think 60% to 80% of the strings volunteered to audition, and it's true there were some cases of hurt feelings over being moved back in the section. On the other hand, some of the new people coming in to replace those who retired were also very good and it would have been unfair for them to be stuck at the back."

With a solid organization in place and some sifting and winnowing of personnel, the scene was set for a leap forward in quality. Indeed, the first season's concerts under DeMain have amply demonstrated improved playing by the musicians. "I'm trying to get the orchestra to the highest level of performance it can reach," says DeMain, who's a stickler for details without in any sense being a tyrant about it. "We do a lot of slow playing, from which underlying musical ideas emerge that might be lost in a mad scramble for the notes. It also helps the musicians play in tune and to listen to each other. Then when we play up to speed, you hear their collective musical consciousness, their brains engaged as well as their fingers." The approach has paid off this season in terms of improved ensemble and much better intonation.

The main reason DeMain left his successful career in Houston was to have his own orchestra. And after a year with the Madison Symphony, he feels that he's got one. "I cherish the relationship we have," he says. "The concentration has been unbelievable. The musicians are on the edge of their seats. The beauty of their playing has impressed me. The secret is that in their collective mentality they know I am listening to their contribution."

Success in the musical realm is a key component of building success in the community. Indeed, DeMain feels that Madison is ready for an expansion in its symphonic organization. The MSO's marketing studies estimate the total audience in the area, not just the core of Madison, at about 400,000. And expanding the number of these people who will attend the symphony's concerts is a key to the organization's growth plans. "If our product attains a high enough professional level that audiences are having a wonderful experience," DeMain says, "then more people will come." DeMain is also the artistic director of the Madison Opera, which this year split off from the Madison Symphony to become an independent organization with its own directorate, staff and funding. "The opera overnight went from stepchild to infant with no safety net," says DeMain. "This first season for them is full of risks. They have a long tradition, but need to find out who their friends are."

But DeMain is as enthusiastic about the opera as he is about the symphony and is certainly making every effort to strengthen the fledgling enterprise. "I meet with the business community to spread the word. If it gets through the first year and finds it does have friends, from there we can clearly know which way to go. I'm preaching a five-year plan with the symphony, but it would be irresponsible to do that with the opera until we see where it ends up at the completion of this first season."

DeMain emphasizes the need for private contributions to keep the opera afloat. A recent $100-a-plate fund-raising dinner reached its goals, which is certainly a good sign. "People who love music come from all walks of life," DeMain says, "and to support opera takes big money so that there will be tickets at all price ranges. You work to make it friendly to all, but to do so you have to go after private money."

To really establish itself, the Madison Opera cannot rely on relatively low-risk ventures as its staple offerings. Glancing over the list of the opera's past repertory, you see a fairly heavy reliance on the tried-and-true, the 1993 world premiere of [Daron Hagen's] Shining Brow notwithstanding. DeMain speaks of the potential of such first-rate second-rate operas as The Tales of Hoffman, which will be done here next year. But he declines to comment on the prospects of the Madison Opera mounting productions of far more challenging masterworks like Verdi's Otello or Richard Strauss's Salome. The latter opera seems to me beyond reach, but I'd love to be proved wrong, as it would put the Madison Opera on the same map as the majors. "We can aim high," DeMain comments, "and we will distinguish ourselves by the quality of what we do."

As though the Symphony and the Opera weren't enough, DeMain also has at his command the Madison Symphony Chorus. This group, which in the past has depended on fairly fixed programming formulas, is slated for a greater role in the overall effort. Certainly it will face a major challenge this weekend in the Beethoven Ninth. In coming seasons, the role of the chorus is likely to expand considerably as the symphony organization undertakes imaginative new ideas in audience and programming development. There could be summer concerts and music festivals of various kinds, and there will definitely be more "subscription pairs" for the regular symphony season.

"Roland Johnson told me when I arrived that the greatest present I could possibly give him would be to move the organization and the audience to subscription pairs," says DeMain.

This phrase refers to matinee concerts on Sunday, repeating the program of the night before. The main attractions of the paired concerts are that the players have a second opportunity to perform challenging works, the potential audience is considerably larger, and the net effect is a greatly increased exposure to cultural assets without a comparable increase in risks. "Sunday matinee houses do not have to be full for us to break even financially," DeMain notes. "Next year we are having two pairs, and we want to move next to four, then to six, after that." There are even more ambitious things in the wind, still far from verifiable as facts, but intriguing as prospects. The Madison Civic Center has been quite successful at offering a full schedule of events, and the Oscar Mayer Theatre is a good venue for stage productions like musicals, operas and dance events. But it is news to no one that for acoustic concerts, the hall presents some problems that can only be mitigated by microphones -- that is, by going against the acoustic ideal. "The sound is really excellent on stage," says DeMain, "but it doesn't carry well into the hall."

What the town needs is a real performing arts center, a venue somewhat larger than the Wisconsin Union Theater, with superb acoustics and a permanent shell. Such a hall would be the ideal place for recitals and chamber music concerts, and of course it could also serve as the real home of the Madison Symphony Orchestra as we move into the next century. About the prospects for such a development, DeMain is inscrutable. But it's hard to imagine a musician of his caliber and ambition not at least smiling at the suggestion that there could be something afoot in this area. (One possibility would be a renovation of the Orpheum movie theater on State Street.)

John DeMain is a very dedicated, very focused and very hard-working musician. He is also fascinating as a person. It might seem odd to some that after such a highly successful stint in a much larger, much richer city like Houston, he would want to come to Madison as the next step in his career. Unlike some artists, he is an articulate and confident conversationalist, and he's only too glad to talk about this aspect of the move. "Houston has only one season, and it was hard to adjust to having four of them," he says with a broad grin -- he's referring to weather, not music -- "but Houston is a business district and outlying suburbs with very little sense of community. Madison has been such a joy to experience. It's a wonderful, wonderful city, and more than lives up to its reputation. Here you have the Capitol, lakes, hills, the Farmer's Market, pockets of things you can do, and a very strong sense of community."

Seeing the man on his own terrain (a large, airy house full of beautiful things in a heavily wooded and somewhat secluded development on Madison's west side), enjoying good food and conversation on a bright Sunday midday in the midst of a bustling life, I got a strong sense of a relaxed and serene person. Observing him with Barbara DeMain and their vivacious three-year-old daughter, it's obvious that Madison is his home, that he already feels a part of the community.

I asked DeMain to sum it all up for me. Serious and cheerful all at once, he responded, "The music business is tough, hard work. What gets me through is the opportunity for the musicians. This recharges our batteries, and we ride on the excitement and joy. If we had a motto, it would be: Think only joy."

The capstone event of John DeMain's first season with the Madison Symphony will be this weekend's two performances of that most formidable of symphonic challenges, Beethoven's 9th Symphony. As it happens, this will be DeMain's first time conducting the work. Asked if that scares the daylights out of him, he reminisced about conducting the first performance of Leonard Bernstein's opera A Quiet Place in Houston.

"It was awesome to have that responsibility, but I preferred not to think about it so much, so that it didn't become a distraction."

In preparing for a Beethoven Ninth, conductors usually fret over the performance history of the work: how other orchestras have handled the extremes of tempo and character. But DeMain isn't too worried about the weight of history. "I've always been the kind of musician who likes to have my own relationships to the music: How does this music move me? So I try not to be too much under the sway of other performances."

But, having sung in the chorus for a performance of the Ninth at Tanglewood under Bernstein, he notes, "I always remember and have very much in my mind a quality associated with that performance."

The work lies between the classical and romantic periods of the 19th century. Although the orchestration is progressive, Beethoven's classical aspect appeals to DeMain's temperament. "I tend to respond as a classicist -- that is, not to superimpose a lot of personal distortion on the piece. I'm looking for the espressivo in the music without having to stretch tempo into a highly romantic concept."

I wondered what aspect of the highly idealistic text of the final choral movement, Schiller's Ode to Joy, spoke most poignantly to DeMain himself and likely would to his audience. "Joy is love," he says, "expressed in the brotherhood of man, so difficult to obtain, underscoring the importance of striving for a utopian ideal. Look how present it is for us today. Oklahoma. Bosnia. Racism. We still seem far from this ideal. This music serves as reminder against the dark forces within us. We need its healing and restorative powers."

Isthmus, April, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson

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