The Madison Symphony Orchestra's continuing renewal and rededication, midway through the first season under its new music director John DeMain, has not only attracted enthusiastic capacity audiences, who cram the far crannies of the Oscar Mayer Theatre for every concert, but it has also inspired the orchestra's many talented musicians. It apparently doesn't make a great difference whether the players have been with the MSO for many years, have sampled a little of both the DeMain approach and the preceding Roland Johnson one, or have joined the venerable symphonic body just this season -- they seem to share the themes of swiftly rising motion, of growing artistic excitement, of increasing professionalism, and of great hopes for the common endeavor.
To gain perspective from their side, I spoke with five players about their impressions of the current season as it has developed under DeMain's leadership. All but one had played under Roland Johnson, for whom they voiced the greatest respect; indeed the four all praised Johnson for building the MSO steadily over the years, beginning with a strictly community organization and making it into a partly professional group ready for its next growth step.
Marc Fink has held key positions, first as English hornist, now as principal oboeist in the MSO's excellent wind division, for more than 20 years. Whereas for a substantial part of its past, the appeal of MSO concerts depended greatly on visiting soloists, it's interesting that "this year, it's the orchestra itself that's important," Fink remarked. "We share the excitement of looking forward to the new developments, perhaps not quite sure of what will happen," he said, "and perhaps we even surprised ourselves a bit, when not only could we play the Mahler 1st, but we could do it well. Then in our second program, we were able to bring out the transparency and finesse of the Mozart." These achievements are enormously gratifying to players. "Even though it's very hard to play at the level DeMain has in mind, we feel good when we are able to do it," Fink said.
Alongside Fink, clarinetist Linda Bartley, who joined the MSO in 1992, echoes his sentiments about the effort involved: "I'd say the attitude now is that we have to work very hard, so that excellence becomes routine. DeMain has a very clear end result in mind, and this creates a partnership in which everybody benefits, I think. One element of the excitement is this cross-fertilization." Bartley is also enthusiastic, as were all the people I talked with, about the audience. "The house is full every time," she said, "and that loyalty tells us we are appreciated. This in turn stimulates us to try always to be at our best."
Andrew George, who is a graduate conducting student at UW-Madison, is the MSO's principal percussionist. He is grateful to DeMain for reauditioning the orchestra, for it allowed him to move up to the section leader position. "This sent us a message, I think, that chairs were important, that they really mean something, helping us to think in a more professional way about what we're doing." George too mentioned the influence of solid audience support: "The full houses are very important to us."
On the string side of things, contrabassist John Clark arrived at the same time as Bartley. Whereas many current players in the MSO have come into the organization without long professional experience, Clark played for 19 years in the Utah Symphony, first under Maurice Abravanel and later under Joseph Silverstein. In that context he was accustomed to a highly competitive jockeying for position. "Here," he said, "I'm glad that that cut-throat aspect is absent, yet neither is the MSO cliquish." Of DeMain, Clark mentioned his very thorough rehearsal technique: "His rehearsals are very ambitious, very concentrated. He makes it clear what the main idea is and then works to make it apparent in the result."
Graduate student (in physics) Stephen Kadlecek also benefitted from the audition process, landing in the second chair of the first violin section. This is perhaps more remarkable as this is his first season with the MSO. He played in community and professional orchestras in Washington, DC before coming to Madison, however, and that background adds force to his very positive attitude about DeMain. "He is fantastic, the best conductor by far that I have played under," Kadlecek said. "Other conductors would arrive at a rehearsal expecting you to make this or that mistake. DeMain doesn't do that. He pays complete attention to what we actually do. He absolutely knows the details of the score and he brings that out of us." Kadlecek said he found the audiences amazing: "Though I've played in groups of perhaps comparable quality, I've never played to full houses before, and the support here is very different, and very rewarding."
Similar views would probably be echoed by a majority of the MSO's members. There is great respect for Johnson for bringing the organization to the point at which this next step could occur. I feel certain DeMain himself would at once stress the importance to him, in deciding to take the position here, of finding both the players and the community ready to make the kind of moves he envisions. The evidence is clear, on the strength of his first three regular concerts, that these visions are unrolling before our eyes (and ears). Even so, a lot will be riding on the last concert of the season, when the MSO and DeMain tackle one of the most titanic of all orchestral-choral challenges, Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
Isthmus, January, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson