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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  A Few Clouds
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In 20 years, John DeMain has built an electrifying Madison Symphony Orchestra
Super conductor
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Credit:Greg Anderson

John DeMain, the Madison Symphony Orchestra's music director, is known for his skillful conducting. But what is he like off the podium? In a word, gracious. He and his wife, Barbara, and their boisterous little dog, Max, welcomed me into their west-side home recently. I came to discuss his professional achievements on the occasion of his 20th season with the symphony, but I also glimpsed his rich personal life. Each side of his life seems to inform the other.

DeMain is a man with hobbies. One is cooking. He takes pride in his "well-equipped kitchen" and boasts a file of special recipes. He also enjoys gardening. Evidence of that surrounds his house, but he maintains a distinction as clear as his baton beat: He does the perennials; his wife does the annuals. No crossovers.

Then there is travel. Though we think of DeMain as "our" conductor here in Madison, his reputation takes him to engagements all over the world, especially for opera and musical theater productions. He enjoys these professional opportunities, but he also loves to see new places.

Though DeMain is a globetrotter, he is interested in Midwestern culture as well. He comes from an Italian family in the eastern Midwest, as opposed what he calls the "German" Midwest of Wisconsin. He was born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1944, son of Dominic and Nancy Dimenna, who came from Italy's Abruzzi area, which, like Wisconsin, is famed for its cheese. His baptismal name was Giovanni Livorio Dimenna, which was shortened to "Dimen" to reflect the family's accent. As he grew up, his name transformed several more times. At the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, he was at first addressed as "Monsieur De Maine." Eventually he settled on his current surname.

DeMain says that culturally, Youngstown was "a good place to grow up." His parents were not musicians, though they enjoyed music and theater. As a child, his musical talents quickly became obvious. Encouraged by supportive teachers, he mastered the piano and began branching out precociously. He was drawn to conducting as early as the fourth grade. At age 9 he accompanied and conducted a school production of Amahl and the Night Visitors while also singing the title role.

"I had a great boy soprano voice, but when it broke, it was hopeless," he says.

DeMain learned to conduct by working from a full score, even leading the school band in a mentor's absence. At 18, he won a piano competition in Youngstown, playing Beethoven's Concerto No. 1. He even beat some Juilliard students.

He later became one of those students, earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in piano at Juilliard. To this he added elective work in conducting. A choice between those two roads was not yet clear, but in summers, he conducted musicals to support himself. For his school friend Dennis Russell Davies, he lent a hand with the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut. His conducting teacher, Jorge Mester, even "wanted to buy [his] right hand," now renowned for its gestural facility.

"I never really thought about being a great pianist," DeMain admits. But his piano abilities did help him enter the world of lyric theater. He spent five years working with Peter Herman Adler in Minneapolis, where he made his first contacts in the opera world. A fellowship at Tanglewood connected him with iconic composer Leonard Bernstein, who provided valuable advice.

Highs and lows

DeMain likes to talk about unexpected openings to his greatest experiences. His early career was marked by ups and downs, plus plenty of uncertainty.

During some time in Germany, he impressed Christoph von DohnÃhyi at the Frankfurt Opera. Meanwhile, he applied for an opportunity to work with Julius Rudel. Just as an offer came through from Frankfurt, he was offered the position with Rudel, which gave him prospects as pianist, conductor and even administrator at the New York City Opera. Accepting the award decided his future trajectory -- in the U.S., not Europe.

Working with Rudel, however, failed to yield some opportunities DeMain had anticipated. After two years, his old friend Davies invited him to audition for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Stealing off secretly, DeMain greatly impressed the players with his musicianship and was offered a post as co-conductor. He decided to face up to Rudel honestly, seeking advice. Though initially angry, Rudel gave DeMain his blessing. He even admitted he was a bit envious.

"I would have killed for such an opportunity," DeMain recalls him saying.

DeMain's two-year position in St. Paul was augmented by a program of podium exchanges. At one point, he conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony, then in a period of slack discipline. His detailed and authoritative directions galvanized the musicians. Despite that achievement, other opportunities were few and far between.

In 1975, he accepted an offer from David Gockley for work at the Texas Opera Theater, in connection with the Houston Symphony's educational series. At the end of his second year there, he heard that Gockley planned to present Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the Houston Grand Opera.

DeMain had known and loved this work since childhood. When he begged to conduct the production, Gockley sat him down with Lorin Maazel's recording of it as a full, through-composed opera, and asked, "Can you do it that well?" DeMain replied, "I can do it differently," insisting he could re-create Gershwin's original intentions for the first time.

Given the job, he set about rescuing the work from a Broadway approach. Though the cast was hostile at first, his commitment to authenticity quickly won their trust and enthusiasm. With stage director Jack O'Brien, he went back to the original play by DuBose Heyward for staging guidance.

As a result of DeMain's hard work, Houston's 1976 production of Porgy was a triumph. It toured, and its recording even won a Grammy.

"It put them on the map," DeMain says of the Houston orchestra, but "nothing happened" for him.

DeMain spent 17 years as a conductor in Houston, also serving a decade with Opera Omaha. His application to the Omaha Orchestra was foiled. And he became increasingly frustrated by American practices of separating orchestra and opera conducting, normally merged in Europe.

Madison's magnetism

In 1991, another crossroads appeared. His future wife, Barbara, came to Houston as an agent for a visiting French production. She and DeMain noticed their chemistry almost immediately. While conducting that summer at the Aspen Festival, he invited her to join him. She flew over from her native Germany. Then, on a trip to Yellowstone National Park, he suggested that they elope. Once she understood what "elope" meant, she agreed.

Though DeMain's personal life was soaring, his professional life was not. Increasingly disillusioned with Houston, he hungered for a good orchestra with which he could refocus his career. He was attracted to Madison's combination of concert and opera opportunities, and made a strong impression with Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in his trial conducting performance. Around the same time, Madison Opera's ambitious undertaking of Shining Brow convinced him that our city was where he wanted to be.

When he began his post with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 1993, he instituted blind auditions, in which candidates play behind a screen to conceal their identities. Initially, many players auditioned with concerto pieces. But during his second year, DeMain insisted on the use of orchestral excerpts, arguing that young players should be thinking of orchestral careers, not solo careers. He also concentrated on expanding the string sections to give the ensemble a fuller sound.

This work was not without challenges. One concern involved the UW School of Music. James Smith, conductor of the university orchestras and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, complained that DeMain was "stealing" his best players. But soon the initial frostiness was replaced by cordial relations. And a genuine symbiosis formed with the UW faculty, who now urge their students to audition for the MSO. Some faculty members are a part of the group as well.

DeMain made sure to keep the former orchestra and opera directors, Roland Johnson and Ann Stanke, active after they retired. Johnson told DeMain that the best tribute to his own tenure would be to "double the size of the audience." DeMain is proud that he done that and then some. The orchestra has also graduated to a sophisticated venue at Overture Center and added a third performance of each program, on Sundays. That means the musicians rehearse or perform every evening for a full week.

Raising the bar for the repertoire has been a concern from the start. DeMain came in "itching to do Mahler" and has since fulfilled that goal. He admits to a predilection for late-Romantic composers and is not as interested in current avant-garde material. But he is open to some new techniques and strives to include works beyond the conventional mainstream, all without competing with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

DeMain takes a careful approach to guest soloists as well. He often seeks out newer professional musicians who are not yet stars with lofty price tags. But he is especially proud of the skills and artistry of his orchestra, and thinks they should be given the spotlight. Thus, this season's opener featured just the orchestra itself.

Though DeMain is not quite ready to commit himself to 20 more years in Madison, he is deeply rooted in the community both professionally and personally. Both of these facts are worth celebrating as the MSO looks to the future, from a 2014 performance of Dvorak's New World Symphony (Jan. 26) to the ensemble's 90th anniversary in 2015.

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