Mad City's high arts are starting to soar. And the Madison Symphony Orchestra is leading the troupes as it prepares for its 2004 move to the state-of-the-art Overture Hall. Who can doubt that the MSO is ready for prime time? Since John DeMain took the reins as artistic director in 1994 the orchestra's enjoying all-time popularity and fiscal success.
DeMain, who came to us from the Houston Grand Opera, also serves as artistic adviser to the Madison Opera. He's dynamic, charismatic and just a tad controversial. He doubles as artistic director of Opera Pacific in Orange County, Calif., and guest-conducts often on the world opera circuit. This is common practice for today's big-league conductors. Daniel Barenboim of the Chicago Symphony also directs the Berlin State Opera. Simon Rattle is artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic, principal guest conductor of London's Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and artistic adviser to the Birmingham (Alabama) Contemporary Music Group. Both maintain global guest schedules, too.
But a recent flap in the Madison press raised the question of whether or not our symphony chief should spend so much time out of town. And there's buzz on the street that DeMain's too demanding - several members of the old orchestra have quit since he took over. Though apparently this hasn't hurt, as the reviews are better than ever. The real issues are these: Can DeMain take all the credit for the MSO's new success? Is he the right guy for a place like ours? And can a conductor on the fast track really commit to a college town that's just starting to go metro?
To get the scoop, I started with the musicians. I called French horn player Douglas Hill, bassoonist Richard Lottridge and cellist Warren Downs, all of whom were principals under DeMain's predecessor, Roland Johnson. Hill and Lottridge retained their positions, but Downs agreed to move back to third chair when DeMain took over.
All concurred on the issues, but Hill said it best: "The orchestra has progressed and grown tremendously for lots of reasons. DeMain is one of them. Any new conductor gives an orchestra new life and vitality. But it's important to remember that Johnson built this orchestra from a community venue to a metropolitan symphony. Under his direction we went from the MATC auditorium to the Civic Center's Oscar Mayer Theatre. Under DeMain we're about to jump to the next level. Each increment is exciting. Our audiences are growing, even though there's a tendency elsewhere for orchestras to lose ground. It's not all DeMain's doing that brought us [philanthropist Jerome] Frautschi's support, but the last few years have been good. And DeMain's international activity is healthy. He knows everybody who's out there, so he brings in outstanding guest conductors, and that revitalizes our playing - it keeps us on our toes and provides exciting opportunities to play favorites from their different repertories. That's a big difference from the old MSO. In Johnson's day we rarely had guest conductors."
DeMain's approach is different, too. According to Hill, "Johnson was less technical and more musical - that is, he got to technique through music, by playing the piece over and over again. DeMain gets to music through technique. He'll get down and dirty, balancing chords and dealing with intonations. He sends the signal that he expects everything to be accurate. So players come to rehearsals more prepared technically than they might have in the past, since nobody wants to be singled out."
DeMain's rehearsal schedule heaps on more pressure. Under Johnson, practice was spread over three weeks. But with DeMain's packed agenda, everything happens in a full-time effort the week before performance. This gives the music an immediacy and intensity, Hill says. "It's stressful, but not because DeMain is jumping down our throats. He's a very respectful conductor - he just expects our best, so we give it. That's a very significant part of why these concerts have become more exciting."
Clearly, DeMain is demanding. But, as Lottridge puts it, "The orchestra's much more professional and up to date than it used to be."
Adds Downs: "Working with DeMain is very satisfying. He's a very effective conductor. He knows what he wants, and he gets it."
Is there a flip side? I called two musicians who played under both directors but quit under DeMain. Tinges of resentment seeped through the phone, but both ex-players declined to go on record. Then I reached former violinist Lola Yde, who offered this perspective:
"I'd been thinking about retiring, and Roland's departure seemed like the right time for me to say goodbye. I played under DeMain only once, during his audition. It was a great pleasure; he's a marvelous conductor. But some of us know when to step down, and others don't. People had to re-audition when he came on board, and he listened behind a curtain so his decisions wouldn't be influenced by anything personal. He moved some players back, but they couldn't accept that. If I'd felt up to it I'd have stayed even if I'd been asked to move back. I was happy with my decision. But those who were disgruntled would call me on the phone to complain, and I'd just think, 'Don't you realize you're too old? Wasn't it time for you to step down?' Of course, Roland Johnson was marvelous in his own right. He brought the orchestra to the point where DeMain was interested in coming here. But what DeMain's done with the Madison Symphony and the Opera is just marvelous, don't you feel?"
Johnson himself is happy about how things worked out. "John and I have good rapport," Johnson says. "And I admire his work - he's been very successful, and he's done things I asked him to do. I said, 'John, try to get concert pairs - it'll save money to get two performances from one rehearsal.' I said, 'See if you can get more rehearsal time and more string players.' The Oscar Mayer's a little on the dry side, but the orchestra sounds great if you just have enough strings in it. So John did those things - he's done excellent work in general. The orchestra sounds very good, and I'm terribly pleased."
Ann Stanke, general director of the Madison Opera, calls DeMain an opera visionary. "I don't buy the myth that he's unreasonable," she says. "He's very meticulous, but he's charming and fun, and the end result is superb."
After meeting the maestro, I concur. He's a delight. Given his frenetic schedule, I was surprised to reach him on his cell phone in California. And amazed that he agreed to an interview at his home during a few days of holiday respite.
DeMain's wife, Barbara, greeted me warmly on the front porch of their west-side home and led me to an airy living room with dark green walls and a grand piano in the corner. A large portrait of the Three Tenors fills the back wall. The maestro was dressed in black - slacks and a turtleneck. We had cookies he baked himself, and green tea.
DeMain, 57, grew up in an Italian family, in Youngstown, Ohio. His parents weren't professional musicians. "But my dad loved to croon," he says. "I always had an aggressive relationship with music. I started piano very young. In fourth grade I'd conduct when the band director didn't show up, and by eighth grade I was teaching music for the nuns."
He won a piano competition in his senior year and went off to Juilliard. "My arms always loved to wave, so I signed up for conducting courses," he recalls. He worked his way through college conducting musicals. "And I used to sing rock and accompany myself on the piano," he adds. "In high school my big hit was 'Rock Around the Clock,' and in college I was into Elton John."
Barbara DeMain, bearing plates of dilled smoked salmon and cream cheese on toast, interjected: "You still do a great imitation of Elton John!"
DeMain's flair for rockin' rhythms has paid off. While we've watched him conduct weighty classical works by Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, his greatest claim to fame is his revival of Porgy and Bess.
It took a whole lotta chutzpah. "I was young when I went to Texas," DeMain explains. "I got a job conducting the Texas Opera Theater, the touring arm of the Houston Grand. I called it my Peace Corps assignment. I got to see west Texas, though I don't care if I ever see it again! I hadn't been there long when I heard that Houston had plans to do Porgy for the 1976 bicentennial. I barely knew the director, but I burst into his office and said 'I'm the best conductor for that job, hire me!' He just looked and said 'Can you get along with blacks? Do you know jazz?' Then he grabbed the British recording that was the gold standard at that time and dropped the needle on 'My Man's Gone.' 'Can you do better?' he asked. 'The Brits have no feel for the American idiom,' I replied. And he hired me!"
Gershwin's will stipulates that all staged performances of Porgy must have all-black casts. But black singers were disillusioned, DeMain notes - they felt the British version was inauthentic. So he delved into the play and the spirituals that were Gershwin's inspiration, determined to get to the real soul of the show. In New York, he auditioned over 500 African American singers for the Houston company's production. "I'll never forget the first rehearsal," he says. "Forty-two choristers, all black, thinking, 'What's this white boy gonna show us?' But I got out there and conducted with jazz and pizzazz and love. We opened to phenomenal reviews in Houston, on Broadway, in Europe and Japan." The 1976 recording based on this production won a Grammy and a slew of other awards. DeMain will conduct portions of Porgy along with other Gershwin for the MSO's Feb. 1 and 2 concerts (see sidebar).
"When we were doing Porgy on Broadway, Leonard Bernstein came backstage," DeMain continues. "He said he'd always wanted to hear it played this way, and since I'd done it, he didn't have to!"
DeMain ended up directing Bernstein's only opera, A Quiet Place, as well as a mid-'80s revival of West Side Story. And he started collaborating with Plácido Domingo long before the silk-throated, Spanish-born Mexican became an icon with the Three Tenors.
With such big-time accomplishments, why did DeMain give up Houston for our little city? For several reasons, he says. One was the 1993 world premiere of Shining Brow, the opera about Frank Lloyd Wright that was such a feather in Roland Johnson's cap. DeMain was in the audience. "I was taken with the quality of the production," he recalls. "I thought if an opera company could pull that off in a small setting like Madison, there were people here who cared. Also, my agent told me the Madison Symphony was fiscally healthy. And then I spent a week with the musicians, as a guest conductor and finalist for the position. I felt rapport with the players - I knew I could achieve something with this orchestra. I'd been focusing on my opera career, but I was ready to be taken seriously as a symphony conductor, too. And my family fell in love with Madison."
Yes, but will he stay? "I'm thrilled to be here. How could I not be, with Overture Hall set to open and the orchestra enjoying an all-time high? It's like a marriage - relationships can turn sour or be magic. At first I had the reputation of being demanding, but the more I demanded, the more the players responded. These musicians love playing, and they communicate their excitement to the audiences, who pick up on the energy and feed it back into the music. My current relationship with the Madison Symphony players is great. I wouldn't give it up, and it's my intention to be their music director for as long as they want me."
DeMain knows people wonder about his guest conducting and his commitment to Opera Pacific. "There's an international scene out there, he says. "Plácido has houses in Washington, Los Angeles, Acapulco and New York." But that kind of life isn't the maestro's cup of tea.
Opera Pacific would like him to live in Orange County, but he's not considering that option. "The itinerant life is doable, with e-mail and cell phones. The key is that I have spectacular administrations helping me achieve my artistic vision for both companies."
It's a normal life for a conductor, and a dream life for DeMain. There are tremendous benefits: The budding partnership between Opera Pacific and the Madison Opera is a two-way street for ideas and talent. And financial collaboration on sets and costumes makes bigger, more interesting productions possible here. The potential will increase with the opening of Overture Hall, though we'll see the first fruits beforehand, with The Barber of Seville in 2003.
DeMain aims for balance - if he's away a lot one season he's here more the next. This year he conducted five of eight programs, which is what his Madison contract calls for. But during 2000-2001 he did seven of eight. Next year, when the season goes to nine events, he'll conduct six of them.
Yes, nine concerts. And more pops stuff, too. DeMain's finger is on the pulse. "This is an incredibly musical town," he says. "Our audiences are expanding, and I think they'll grow more. There's a whole set of empty-nesters looking for cultural fulfillment, and even kids are discovering classical, for some relief from rock. I want Dane County to really perceive MSO as the city's orchestra. And I want to build a big local base for when we move into Overture Hall. Next summer we're doing an evening of opera's greatest hits at Garner Park - I hope thousands of people come. We're adding a Valentine's Day concert with light classical for lovers, and a public dance with Viennese waltzes for next New Year's Eve. We're working on community outreach efforts and new kinds of programs for young concertgoers. I want to issue a holiday CD, and one of overtures for the opening of Overture Hall. And you'll see us on TV!"
Can Madison sustain so much growth? "You hear that attendance at symphonies is dwindling. I don't entirely buy that, but we're bucking the trend, which is typical for Madison. Time will tell. There's always a danger of glutting the market, and then we'd have to downsize our mission. But if we play well and the public comes, music wins."
Some lament the days when our town was smaller, our symphony more regional. But the new Madison wins too, with a maestro like DeMain.