John DeMain, newly chosen as music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera, has ambitious plans for building these cultural assets from the point at which he assumes the baton Roland Johnson has wielded lo these past 32 years. His credentials are first-rate, and he seems quite equal to the tasks before him. Though he is a very serious, no-nonsense sort of person, he is also down-to-earth and realistic in his expectations and aspirations. Personally, he is affably relaxed, confident, and engaging.
Presented by the Madison Civic Music Association at a press briefing last week, DeMain was naturally somewhat guarded about plans for the upcoming season, since the MCMA likes to make a separate publicity spash when programs and soloists have been cast in their final form (traditionally this happens in April). But he was very forthcoming about what lies before him. "I found the cultural climate here to be healthy and interested in growth," he said.
There will nevertheless be significant trials. At the time of his guest appearance here last October, DeMain seemed to stretch the orchestra a little past the boundary of their capabilities, getting into major ensemble trouble in one passage, while in another work the extra energy required to hold things together came off as somewhat forced. These difficulties, however, did not greatly diminish the overall lyricism and strength of DeMain's command on the podium.
His past positions with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and most recently with the Houston Grand Opera have prepared him for community outreach and educational efforts (the job includes a Madison Area Technical College component). Mentioning a recent study that revealed a massive decline in high-school string programs, DeMain intends to bring live music into the schools and other venues where young people can experience it. "It's important," he said, "actually to see Marc Fink play the oboe, not just to hear it."
Impressed with Madison's world premiere of the opera Shining Brow (DeMain was in the audience), he sees a strong potential for further growth in the local opera effort. "It's not something we could do every year, probably," he noted, "but I look forward to the prospect of other new works for our opera."
In a wide-ranging telephone conversation last weekend, we focused on the repertory aspects of DeMain's growth plans. He had mentioned scanning the past several year's programs (an effort is now underway to do this more systematically), noting what hasn't been heard much in recent years. To my great delight, as soon as I mentioned Mahler symphonies DeMain was obviously enthusiastic, responding cryptically, "You'll see." Not the least of the challenges he faces is to strengthen the orchestra at the level of individual players. This is a delicate task, especially with a group that is not fully professionalized. DeMain suggested he might hold general auditions for all , the better to gauge his players' various assets. Part of the repertory decision relates to this improvement: "For the most part we will probably leave Baroque pieces to the specialist, scholarly groups," he said, "but the Classical works -- Mozart and Haydn especially -- will let us work together toward increasing precision and clarity."
Asked about 20th-century repertory, DeMain noted the absence of Schoenberg and Webern, composers who have not enjoyed great audience support in the past. I hope he will buck that trend and program at least the more accessible works of these great masters. DeMain is under no illusions about the size and scope of the tasks he faces. But he's also wonderfully cheerful and optimistic, qualities that should serve him well as he tries to ramp up the quality of the musical organizations he's responsible for and at the same time develop further the tastes and expectations of his audiences.
Isthmus, February, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson