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John DeMain sticks with the Madison Symphony Orchestra while becoming one of the world's top conductors
An American musician's journey
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Credit:Nathaniel Gold

When John DeMain raises his baton on the Madison Symphony Orchestra's podium, nearly 100 musicians come to attention, awaiting his mighty downbeat.

During his 19 seasons as the orchestra's conductor and music director, DeMain has given our city masterpieces by the introspective Mahler, the flamboyant Strauss, the brooding Sibelius. He expanded the string section, increased the audience, and introduced challenging repertoire. On top of all that, he's maintained an international career, traveling thousands of miles a year. It's earned him a reputation as one of the world's best conductors.

So after 19 years, what keeps a guy like John DeMain in Madison?

DeMain, 68, was always something of a Renaissance man, even as a young boy in Youngstown, Ohio.

His parents, Nancy and Dominic, loved music and theater, but they weren't professional musicians. His brother went into business. Then there was John, who was born musical.

He started piano lessons at age 6 and conducted his grade-school band when the teacher was absent. He conducted Brigadoon at the city's community theater when he was 14. He was a boy soprano and played piano for singers in Youngstown. At 18, he made his solo debut with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. Then he studied piano for six years at New York City's Juilliard School, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees.

In Youngstown, DeMain started down the long and winding road to becoming an American conductor.

"All musicians who grow up in America have an awareness of our own [culture's] music. That's what it's all about," he says. "When my peers in third grade found out I could play piano, they didn't want to hear Beethoven. They wanted me to play Paul Anka's "Diana." [He sings a few bars of the pop song.] I kept the classical world to myself sometimes, but knowing everyday music pays off in the classical world. John Adams draws on Jimi Hendrix in Nixon in China."

Elective coursework in conducting revealed even more of his natural abilities, such as an extraordinary left hand that elicits expressive playing from orchestras.

In the early 1960s, DeMain honed his skills on the summer-stock circuit in Massachusetts and with the Kenley Players in Ohio. He'd then return to New York to play chamber music and teach piano while studying with pianist Adele Marcus at Juilliard.

At Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he received conducting tips from the musical legend Leonard Bernstein, whose works he would later conduct.

"I was doing so many different things that I sometimes wondered, 'Who is the real John DeMain? How will all this come together?'" he says. "But I'm grateful that I allowed myself a variety of experiences. It's the American musician's journey."

DeMain considered making his career in Europe. But in the 1970s, he began to win American awards, such as the New York City Opera's Julius Rudel award and a conducting fellowship from Exxon and National Endowment for the Arts. These accolades convinced him to stay in the States.

In 1975, David Gockley, general director of the Houston Grand Opera, invited DeMain to conduct the opera's touring unit, the Texas Opera Theater. During his second year on the job, DeMain heard that the HGO needed a conductor for an upcoming production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. He walked into Gockley's office and said, "You should hire me for the job."

Gockley took DeMain into his coaching room and played a recording of the opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel.

"Can you do better than that?" he asked.

"I don't know if I can do better than that, but I would do it differently. That's not Gershwin," said DeMain.

He got the job.

DeMain and director Jack O'Brien studied Porgy and Bess. It would be the first production of the opera as Gershwin wrote it, without cuts. DeMain negotiated with the Gershwin family to open up its structure. The show went on to win awards in America and at the Grand Prix du Disque in France. After its enormous success, he got promoted, becoming HGO's principal conductor and later its music director. He held these positions for nearly 18 years before moving to Madison.

Another life-altering event happened in Houston in 1991. He met his future wife, Barbara, while working on an opera production of Piazzolla's Maria de Buenos Aires.

"Barbara… came over to the Houston Grand Opera offices to work out contracts. During the opening-night party, we danced and had a good time," he recalls. "She went back to Germany the next day, but I invited her to Aspen that summer. On Aug. 10, in Yellowstone, I asked her if she would like to elope and get married. She didn't know what 'elope' meant, so I suggested that she look it up in her German dictionary. Afterward, she said 'yes,' and we were married in a civil ceremony in Jackson Hole on Aug. 23. Then we had a beautiful wedding in Houston in November, and now it's been over 20 years."

The couple's daughter, Jennifer, is an accomplished mezzo-soprano. She has sung in the Madison Opera's productions of Turn of the Screw and Galileo Galilei.

DeMain's career has taken him everywhere, from Cairo to Broadway, but his home and primary focus are Madison.

When the MSO hired him in 1994, he inherited a professional orchestra thanks to the efforts of the late Roland Johnson, who led the organization from 1961 to 1994.

DeMain set out to challenge the musicians with some of the toughest repertoire in the business.

"I didn't like what I saw in other parts of the country: one movement of a symphony, a bonbon here and there," he says. "They were dumbing down [their programs]. But I refused to go that way. I wanted to do big, hard pieces."

DeMain expanded the string section to achieve a fuller sound. In his 2001 history of the orchestra, MSO historian, program annotator and trombonist Michael Allsen wrote that "many veteran wind players remember staring at one another in astonishment at the sound of the strings in our first rehearsal in September 1994."

"All of us who have been in the orchestra since the beginning of John's tenure remember with gratitude having the chance to play all nine Mahler symphonies," says Allsen. "As the orchestra has improved, we've also been able to tackle works like Rite of Spring, which the MSO would simply not have been able to handle a decade earlier."

Ambitious repertoire was only one of DeMain's guiding stars.

"When Roland passed the baton to me, he said the greatest tribute to his time here would be to double the size of the audience, and that resonated with me," says DeMain.

"So we started the Sunday-afternoon concerts and grew the audience beyond Madison."

MSO executive director Rick Mackie collaborates with DeMain to make business, marketing and programming decisions.

"Among John's many attributes is a rare-among-conductors objectivity that enables him to get out of his shoes, so to speak, and see our work from other perspectives," says Mackie. "So, as he contemplates programming, he considers the artistic and the business aspects of such decisions. The word we use most is 'balance.'"

A few years ago, the MSO downsized its Overture Hall season, going from nine concerts to eight. This helped keep the budget in check.

"Over the years, we have been fiscally responsible, and that's why we're relatively healthy," says DeMain. "But things can turn on a dime, and you never know what may happen tomorrow."

DeMain is also the Madison Opera's artistic director. The MSO serves as the company's pit orchestra.

"John and I choose the operas for the season together," says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera's general director. "He has a true passion for opera, and it shows in every aspect of what he does."

Composer Jake Heggie met the maestro in 2002, just before the premiere of his groundbreaking opera Dead Man Walking.

"John sat and listened to me play through the whole opera at the piano, and at the end he said, 'Well, young man, you have written an opera,'" he recalls. "That was very encouraging to me."

DeMain went on to conduct Dead Man Walking at Opera Pacific, where he served as artistic director until 2008, and then in Cincinnati, New York and Australia.

"John and I have backgrounds in American musical theater, so he understands my work innately," says Heggie. "He understands dramatic pacing and that everything is in service to the drama. That's not true for all conductors. He's also a good symphony conductor because he brings out the theater in that music. Brahms and Bach wrote very theatrical music, even though they didn't write for the theater."

He adds: "There's no one like John DeMain. In my opinion, he's one of the top conductors in the world."

So what keeps a guy like John DeMain in Madison? It's home.

DeMain travels thousands of miles a year for his job, so it's nice to have a friendly community waiting for him here.

"I can't begin to say how much I admire the people I work with," he says. "The staff and the boards are wonderful. And the commitment of the Madison Symphony and the joy with which they prepare the music speak to the amazing dedication of the musicians."

Next season, the MSO will celebrate and reflect on its 20-year journey with Maestro DeMain. But he will look ahead and dream of bigger, better ways to kindle the orchestra's creative spark.

"Memory gives perspective, but it can also be short," he says. "I don't reflect much. I always look to the future."

From Russia with love

The Madison Symphony Orchestra will kick off its 2012-13 season on Sept. 21-23 with an all-Russian program at Overture Hall. First up is Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, a charming piece he finished when he was just 26 years old. Vibrant and elegant, it combines classical proportions and motifs with modern compositional techniques.

Then Madison favorite Garrick Ohlsson reunites with the MSO for Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2, an expansive Romantic work packed with energy and lilting melodies. Its fiery cadenzas will require all the virtuosity Ohlsson can muster. This will be the MSO's first time performing this hidden classical gem.

The concert will end with Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, based on a classic Russian tale about the Firebird, a good fairy who helps a prince destroy an ogre to save his princess. Like much of Stravinsky's ballet music, Firebird mixes sensual charm with primal energy.

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