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John DeMain: In Search of Tempo Giusto

"Now that I think about it," says Maestro John DeMain, "the idea of tempo giusto [an Italian phrase that means the right or fitting tempo] describes just about everything I do or aspire to." Since taking over the helm as artistic director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 1994, DeMain and his family have settled comfortably into the local community, grateful for such amenities as farmer's markets, good schools and a spacious, light-filled west side home. DeMain is also the artistic adviser of the Madison Opera, bringing to this company the lyrical gifts that were the hallmark of his 18-year tenure as music director and principal conductor of the Houston Grand Opera.

As though he were not busy enough with these assignments, DeMain, who at 57 is only rarely caught resting, has plenty to do outside of Madison. As artistic director of Opera Pacific in affluent Orange County, California, he has in four short seasons rescued that company from the brink of financial disaster and created a thriving, stable enterprise with an $8.5 million annual budget. Nor is this the end of the story; DeMain regularly conducts elsewhere (opera, primarily), for example last summer presenting John Phillip Sousa's Glassblowers at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, this summer leading the Cincinnati Opera in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, and next spring conducting Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the New York City Opera, reviving the production for which he won numerous awards. DeMain is world-renowned for his Porgy, which he has performed almost 300 times to international critical acclaim, successes that included such notoriously hard-to-please audiences as that of La Scala in Milan, one of the most important opera houses in the world.

Indeed, not that DeMain hasn't garnered great respect in the community, we in Madison often take our artistic luminaries somewhat for granted, not fully recognizing the extent to which their activities elsewhere enrich our cultural lives right here. This is certainly the case with DeMain, who probably knows as much as anybody alive who the world's fast-rising young instrumental soloists and singers are. Whenever he can, even between performances in a run of an opera somewhere, he'll make a quick trip to New York to audition young artists. This benefits us, for example, by bringing the leads of the upcoming New York City Opera Porgy to Madison next season for an MSO concert performance of scenes from the opera.

I've encountered few people who are as dynamic on as many fronts as DeMain is. For all that his life is dominated by the hard work of preparing performances, by criss-crossing the country and going overseas, by yet another meeting or long-distance phone call or by fund-raising for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, and Opera Pacific, DeMain is a friendly, relaxed, and entirely approachable person. On a personal level, he seems wonderfully alert, responsive and balanced in everything he does, from making music, to cooking and entertaining, to being a husband and a dad. As they say in L.A., he's a phenom.

DeMain's enormous energy perhaps makes it less surprising that our symphony and opera have both experienced terrific growth since he arrived, with major increases in the number of events, audience sizes and budgets. More important critically, the level of artistic achievement for the players has risen to a level beyond what most of us ever dared hope for. It seems to me the greatest of DeMain's virtues is his ability to lead, not just in the sense of conducting, but in the more inclusive sense of helping or inspiring everyone involved to achieve his or her personal best in each performance. It's here that tempo giusto bears the richest fruit.

In rehearsal, a process I've witnessed in both opera and orchestra here, in California, in Houston, and in St. Louis, DeMain is extremely demanding. As he explains the process, "When we start on a new program, there is a certain impatience, because we all recognize that we have some distance to go, that time is short and that standards and expectations are both very high." DeMain is not at all tyrannical, but he is very demanding. "I strive for a balance between putting on the pressure and letting up just enough so they can do their best," he says.

Players confirm that this approach works well for them. Clarinetist Linda Bartley echoes what I've heard backstage time and again from MSO players: "Working with him is like making chamber music with a friend; he's on your side, helping you make the greatest music you can possibly make." As do many Madison musicians, Bartley plays elsewhere in the summer season, in her case at the Grand Teton Festival in Wyoming. "From talking to people out there about the conductors they work with," she reports, "I've gained even greater appreciation for John DeMain. From the first day he had a concept for the orchestra as an instrument, just as I have a concept for the clarinet. He infuses the passion and joy of making music into everyone, lifting our spirits so we can make not just OK music, but great music."

DeMain's conducting philosophy is not to micromanage his players. "They know how to play," he says, "so my role is to determine a pace, establish a character, reveal what's in the score and make it all exciting." There's no doubt whatever that this approach works very well indeed, and not only here. Recently I attended rehearsals and the opening night performance of Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier at Opera Pacific and very soon afterward did the same with Verdi's Falstaff here in Madison. In both instances, each successive rehearsal was a kind of great leap forward for singers and instrumentalists and for DeMain himself. By the time the actual performances arrived, things had reached a a very high level. I can flat-out say that that opening-night Rosenkavalier was the most completely satisfying evening I've ever spent in an opera house. Yet even then the artistic growth continued, for as DeMain told me later, by the fourth and final performance of the opera just about everyone was in tears, overcome by the beauty of what they had accomplished together.

I'm sometimes a bit chagrined when it comes to reviewing MSO concerts, concerned that I'll run out of superlatives. There are only so many ways to say "great," after all. But it seems to be in the nature of art, certainly of musical art, that each new level attained also opens up a new prospect for further achievement. That kind of growth doesn't depend solely on the talents of the artists themselves, but also includes the physical surroundings.

Eight years ago, no one would have predicted that there could be a new concert hall in downtown Madison, but right now there's a deep hole in the ground between Fairchild and Henry Streets where before long the Overture Center's new concert venue will rise up. The growth of the MSO is a key element in this development. For years the discomfort and spotty acoustics of the Oscar Mayer Theatre have imposed a heavy burden on audiences and players alike. To be able to play together -- really together -- and create great ensemble, the players must listen carefully to one another, a feat that only first-rate on-stage acoustics can support. To be able to fill a large auditorium again and again, the MSO needs to give audiences leg room and a more reliable contact with the orchestra's sound, wherever they're sitting in the room.

Without discounting the difficulties to be overcome, DeMain's hopes for the future, for both the players and the community, are brightly optimistic. "We have just now a rare combination of positive forces," he says, speaking of the MSO, "with top-flight management, with having shown what we can do and with an audience that has so far embraced our efforts." This has not happened in a vacuum, but rather as the result of careful planning within the framework of a broad vision. "We've met nearly all of the objectives we set when I came to Madison," he remarks, "and we are now on the threshold of taking the orchestra to a new artistic level, as well as establishing a growing presence in the community. We want to expand our educational outreach efforts, to increase the number of subscription concerts, including both classical and pops programs, and to develop programs involving the media. We want to record and televise the orchestra, to build on our partnerships with Madison Area Technical College for adult education and with the UW for player development and to more fully realize our potential to have an impact on the community's cultural fabric."

The commitment to community is a major element, I think, in the great strides DeMain has made in Madison. With him it's very much a quality-of-life issue, drawing energy and direction from a strong family background as a highly motivated achiever when he was young and from his own family here in Madison as a mature person. Working as an arts consultant in Germany before coming to the States, where she met and married John DeMain in Houston in 1991, Barbara DeMain is no less a dynamo than he. She is strong-willed, ambitious and enthusiastic. You can count on her to say what she thinks. She's second to none in her ardent support of the Maestro, a task in which their daughter Jennifer, now nine years old and about to start fourth grade at the Madison Country Day School, is her closest ally. They collaborate on John DeMain's need for quiet and reflection between concerts, on dealing with his hectic travel schedule and on enjoying one another to the fullest when he returns from his distant engagements.

The payoff for all this activity, it seems to me, is the unique joy that only live musical performance can bring. The meeting ground for performers (including the conductor) and the audience is in the sound as it reverberates throughout the auditorium. Both parties bring to each moment their interest and anticipation before and during a performance, merging their living, breathing presences and their creative energies, mutually exchanging a fully two-way communication in a language that otherwise wouldn't even exist. The description of this miracle may seem abstract, but at the moment of actually happening, few things are more real than music. In the end, then, the real story of Maestro DeMain is how much more music we have now, as well as how much more we have to look forward to in the years ahead.


Madison Magazine, August, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson

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