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The MSO at the Fulcrum Point

Before music director John DeMain's arrival in 1994, I would not have forecast -- nor even dared hope -- that lovers of fine symphonic music could routinely expect the level of music-making we've been enjoying the past few seasons from the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Nor could I have foreseen the MSO being in a position of such promise as it now is. The organization is brimming with enthusiasm for the just-announced 75th anniversary season of fascinating repertory and superstar soloists (see sidebar) and is poised for further growth as it looks forward to a vastly improved new venue, thanks to the Overture Foundation's arts-district project.

This weekend's concert provides a foretaste of one new direction for the MSO: a sophisticated, multimedia-enhanced performance of the Creation, which will include projections onto a 16 x 24-foot screen of about 700 representative artworks that retell the story of the seven days of Biblical Genesis while the MSO, the Symphony Chorus and outstanding soloists perform Haydn's great oratorio in English, with texts based on the Bible and Milton.

DeMain has galvanized major upturns in every facet of the MSO -- individual musician talent, sectional intonation, full-orchestra ensemble, sound placement in the Oscar Mayer Theatre, challenging repertory, organizational confidence and audience enthusiasm. However, I doubt that he will rest on his laurels. His goal is nothing less than making life richer and more exciting for local music lovers. To build on the successes of DeMain's first six seasons here, the MSO needs to come up with big ideas to keep the audience inspired and to keep the organization vital in the 21st century.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra made a giant leap of faith when it hired Julliard-trained DeMain, who before coming here had served for 18 years as the artistic director of the Houston Grand Opera. There he presided over a number of important world premieres and helped raise that company to peer status with New York's Metropolitan Opera, Chicago's Lyric Opera, etc. In Madison, DeMain inherited a perfectly serviceable regional orchestra, but one that was also primed for major improvements.

"One of the big changes," he observes, "is that when I arrived, the first rehearsal was very different from what it is now. Even with a brand-new work, the level of the first reading is much more secure."

The excitement of taking part in DeMain's MSO has attracted the very best local players to the orchestra, in turn permitting another major goal to be achieved this season for the first time: a full complement of string players. The difference in the orchestra's sound is palpable; it is richer, fuller and yet more transparent. It better balances the strings among themselves and in ensemble with winds and percussion. As DeMain puts it, there is a change in sound depth "because we have talent in spades right to the back chairs."

Thanks to moving the whole orchestra forward so both flanks are now in front of the Oscar Mayer Theatre's proscenium, this fuller sound also projects better into the auditorium. Coming at the expense of a couple hundred top-price seats displaced by raising the pit elevator one step below main stage level, this innovation has proved well worth it from a listener's viewpoint. Synergy among the players, between them and DeMain, and between the orchestra and the audience has been enhanced by the arrangement, as was amply demonstrated early this season in a stupefying performance of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony and again recently with Robert McDuffie's performance of the John Adams Violin Concerto.

These improvements do not take place in a vacuum, but are part of a deliberate plan. One of the MSO's goals was to expand the subscription series to pairs of concerts, offering every program on Saturday evening and again on Sunday afternoon. This offers flexibility, for example, for people who find it easier to get downtown in the afternoon than in the evening, as well as for music lovers who also follow Madison's sports scene. I have attended both concerts of nearly all of the pairs and have been delighted to find that the two performances were anything but carbon copies of one another. Music-making is a joyful thing, and the players clearly enjoy playing these difficult works again.

Another objective was to delve into repertory that had not been heard for 10, 15 or 25 years, as well as to bring newer works before the public. In fact there has been a major shift in programming philosophy for the MSO. The former practice of bringing in one big-name guest artist for a single concert has been scrapped in favor of having a strong guest-artist roster for the entire season of paired concerts.

DeMain admits the organization has had some disappointments along the way concerning guest artists: "The guest artists we've brought in are on the season of every major orchestra in the country. It's hard for us to get people who are in such great demand. You may think you have them, only to find they've slipped through your fingers. So we've found it necessary to get an earlier start in securing the engagements."

It will probably help that the quality of the MSO is becoming more widely known. Artists go back to New York and tell their managers that they had a wonderful experience in Madison, and of course other artists hear about it too. Cellist Lynn Harrell was "blown away," DeMain reports, and violinist McDuffie told me backstage that he was gratified by how well the orchestra played the extremely difficult Adams concerto.

Of the Adams piece, DeMain told me, "The orchestra adores such challenges. We've reached the point of not having to worry much about difficulty. They can play these big pieces, and the end of that progression is not in sight; they are more than ready for what's ahead of us."

The Madison Symphony has given a number of outstanding performances since DeMain came on board. Copland's Appalachian Spring was a knockout, and the Beethoven Ninth in the first season stays with me as especially electrifying. The Shostakovich Tenth and Dvorak Eighth were remarkable for unifying the orchestra and conductor as a single instrument. Asked about this, DeMain says, characteristically for someone whose energies are always directed outward, "We feel enormous gratitude toward the audience. It's thrilling to be able to bring such sheer beauty to them."

The MSO now stands at the fulcrum point, poised to leverage its achievements into an even more exciting future. The keys are innovation, commitment to expanding the audience, increasing the number of concerts ("services," in trade talk) and charting a clear path toward the day in 2003 when the new multipurpose concert facility to be created by the Overture Foundation becomes a mortar-and-stone reality one can actually sit in comfortably and enjoy performances in a way not hitherto possible.

One major innovation will be the addition of visual elements to the total esthetic experience for certain events. With a half-century of TV under their belts, modern audiences are likely to respond positively to multimedia presentations like this weekend's concert. The MSO's executive director, Richard Mackie, says that the organization will take further advantage of emerging technologies to enhance the concert-going experience. This would go beyond video components in pops concerts, say, to computer-based interactive visual elements and the commissioning of original art.

The full realization of these ideas awaits the new hall, of course, a world-class facility explicitly designed for such undertakings. At the same time, the facility will offer superior listening conditions for the audience and greatly improved acoustic contact between the musicians themselves. Only by actively hearing each other can they achieve the kind of polished ensemble required to carry them to the next level of their art.

The visual and acoustic capabilities of the new venue should also dovetail nicely with DeMain's unique assets as an experienced conductor of both opera and symphonic music. Opera, like all theatrical arts, has strong visual components, and the conductor both watches and cues events on-stage. Things that are beautiful and moving to look at need the support of music that is beautiful and moving to hear, and vice versa.

Mackie acknowledges this interplay in paying tribute to DeMain: "John DeMain brings us an unusual union of visual and musical expressive elements. He has intensified the artistic experience of this organization and challenged our limits with the question 'Just how good is this orchestra?' Well, I think it's getting pretty good. Recently, new residents in Madison told me they really don't miss Chicago that much. And I don't want anyone to think they've heard the end of it. We must innovate and grow or lose position in the community."

The MSO will undertake a planning exercise this spring to settle on practical ways of strengthening its organization. Among the steps to be considered is adding more concerts, in both pops and classical categories. Growth in that direction is limited, however, by the fact that many members of the orchestra have large teaching commitments, also an important aspect of their professional lives. But Mackie and the staff are active on a number of other fronts as well.

I think one of the most promising initiatives is the outreach program in area schools, called "Up Close and Musical." This year it featured lecture-demonstrations by the MSO's full-time string quartet with a supporting curriculum developed jointly by the MSO and classroom teachers. Concerts for K-2 kids are a long-term investment in the community, certainly, but there's every reason to expect they'll grow up finding classical music a necessary and rewarding part of their lives.

DeMain clearly reciprocates Mackie's esteem. "He thinks on a very large scale," he says, "with keen intensity and solid experience, taking risks and pushing the organization's development." This orientation is reflected in programming concepts, about which the always enthusiastic DeMain becomes even more animated: "We want every program to be a memorable, exciting event in the lives of our audience members."

The key, I think, is balancing the interplay between well-known standard works, less familiar works from the 18th and 19th centuries, 20th-century masterworks and accessible contemporary music. DeMain is very definite about the MSO's commitment to modern music: "We have many different kinds of responsibilities, which include representing to some degree the music of our day, contributing to a broader understanding of our century and its relationship to the whole excitement of living."

Probably not all members of the audience are as keen about modern works as they are about the tried and true repertory. But DeMain can point to wildly enthusiastic audience responses to the Rouse Flute Concerto with Stephanie Jutt, to both the Bernstein Serenade and Adams concerto with violinist McDuffie, to the Barber piano concerto, to Stewart Wallace's Kaddish for Harvey Milk and to the Copland and Shostakovich works already mentioned.

"We take great care about which contemporary music to play, to make sure it is accessible on many levels," DeMain says. "Most composers have a clear desire to communicate with the audience. We want to engage them and to entertain in the highest sense of the word. I see my charge as artistic director as an obligation to work with the audience, but also to inspire and lead them."

My own vision of the unfolding music life of the community is one of steadily increasing excitement. Whether it's the Union concert series, the ever-expanding number of concerts and opera at the university, the area's many fine smaller ensembles, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Opera or the Madison Symphony Orchestra, life in the old town is becoming ever more vibrant. There's no question that the MSO plays a leadership role in this growth. I think it's not uncommon for us to take our local institutions a bit for granted, but surely the dramatic advances we've witnessed in the MSO's case send a clear signal that the Madison area's cultural assets are seen as absolutely essential for a quality existence.

Sidebar: MSO 2000-01 season

The MSO's gala 75th anniversary season will feature exciting big-name soloists in major repertory. In September, the opening concert begins with the world premiere of an MSO-commissioned work by Madison's John Stevens, conducted by Roland Johnson, followed by the always exciting Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto with superstar André Watts as soloist, John DeMain conducting, and concludes with Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, also with DeMain conducting.

In October, Schlomo Mintz will play the Brahms violin concerto on a program that also includes Mozart's "Haffner" symphony and music from Prokofiev's ballet Cinderella. Cellist Lynn Harrell returns in November to play the Elgar concert on a program that opens with Rossini and ends with Copland's 3rd symphony. In March, the French pianist Philippe Bianconi will play two works, the enchanting Fauré Ballade and the irresistible Ravel Concerto in G Major, flanked by Peter Schickele's whimsical Thurber's Dogs and the blockbuster Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Ravel.

Tchaikovsky lovers will certainly not want to miss an entire program devoted to this composer in April, opening with the Waltz from Eugene Onegin and ending with the flourishes of the 4th symphony. In between, the always intriguing virtuoso Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will be the soloist in the Concerto for Violin, Op. 35.

The Devil, in the form of renowned Metropolitan Opera bass Samuel Ramey, comes in May, in a program featuring the MSO Chorus and the Madison Boychoir and including orchestral music plus scenes and arias from operas by Verdi, Boito, Gounod, Strauss and Floyd.

Two popular concerts round out the eight-event series of concert pairs. The December Holiday Spectacular pulls in the MSO Chorus, the Madison Children's Choir, the Madison Area Concert Handbells, and soloists Kitt Reuter-Foss and Scott Piper. It's holiday music, it's festive, and it's fun; what more can I say?

All MSO concerts are preceded by a Prelude Discussion, led by various local mavens, but in January, Hizzoner da Mayor Paul Soglin will capture the flavor of those times before a special event devoted to songs and stories of 60s troubador Arlo Guthrie, conducted by John Nardalillo.

Other than the Guthrie event and the season-opening world premiere piece, John DeMain will be at the helm for all the concerts.

Isthmus, April, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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