The Madison Symphony Orchestra, Now in Its 24th DeMain Edition

There’s more to pique the ears this season than some people think

Growing up loving classical music and opera, and later as a critic, I always had a personal wish list of works I wanted to experience live in the concert hall or opera house. Living a commuter train’s ride away from Lincoln Center didn’t hurt, and neither did four years in Boston. Let’s face it: There was far more great, and often adventurous music making going on than I could possibly hope to take in (or afford!).

My first personal encounter with the realities of programming—and paying for it—came during my time in Los Angeles, when I worked for a year at Los Angeles Opera. When I was on staff in 1994-95 it was the fifth-largest U.S. opera company (I’m not sure what the rankings are today). It’s not that anyone complained they weren’t adventurous some of the time (they did the world premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Kullervo, for example), but when they announced their 10th anniversary season, and included Madame Butterfly, general director Peter Hemmings faced the inevitable question from one of my former critical colleagues: How could you stage that potboiler again (it had already been done several times by LAO). Hemmings answer: I won’t have to worry about selling any tickets; all the performances will be sold-out or close to capacity.

All this by way of providing some context and perspective for DeMain’s 24th season as Music Director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. When the schedule was announced in the spring, a guest posting on the blog The Well-Tempered Ear took DeMain (pictured above with the MSO, courtesy of Peter Rodgers) and the staff to task for its yet-again safe approach to programming, with only a few off-the-beaten-path highlights among its eight subscription programs. One problem was that the repertoire of the soloists was not taken into account. Here is another look…

DeMain has made it a point in recent years to eschew a name international soloist for the first program, and to feature the orchestra itself, and/or make players in the ensemble the solo stars. The opening concerts of September 15, 16 and 17 are no exception, giving principal violist Chris Dozoryst a chance to perform one of the great works for viola and orchestra: Harold in Italy by Hector Berlioz. Just as in his Symphonie Fantastique and Romeo et Juliette, Berlioz dazzles with unexpected instrumental effects, infectious melodies and harmonies that set the stage for Liszt and Wagner a few decades later. The orchestra cuts loose to start the concert with Stokowski’s famous transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. As for the second half, DeMain again looks to program the traditional but overlooked, namely Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony. It is timely of course, as next month will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his “95 Theses,” setting the Protestant Reformation in motion.

The October concerts of the 20, 21 and 22nd feature the return of a favorite soloist for MSO audiences, pianist Olga Kern. She was the soloist at the first MSO concert I reviewed, in September 2010, and has been back one other time since then. Known best for her passionately attacking style in the concertos of Rachmaninoff, she will turn this season to a work I had personally hoped to hear live again sooner or later, the Piano Concerto of Samuel Barber. Yes, one can argue that even though the work is from the second half of the 20th century, the neo-Romantic Barber is hardly adventurous programming. Still, the piece was commissioned for the opening of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center in 1962, and again, we have heard Kern’s staple repertoire, so why not something a little off the beaten path? The rest of the concert consists of solid standard works, the Mother Goose Suite of Ravel and the Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World) of  Dvorak.

On November 17, 18 and 19 we will be treated to one of the world’s great classical guitarists, Sharon Isbin (pictured below, courtesy of Henry Fair), and yes, she will favor us with what should be a pristine reading of the world’s most popular guitar concerto, the Concierto de Aranjuez. But wait—there’s more: we will also get to hear a new work written for her by Chris Brubeck (son of the jazz icon of course, and a significant figure in his own right), “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra.” Her concertos are book-ended by the suite from Copland’s great ballet, Billy the Kid, and a suite from Manuel de Falla’s ballet, The Three-Cornered Hat.


December 1, 2 and 3 marks the return of “A Madison Symphony Christmas,” with all the regular guest choirs and soloists Emily Pogorelc and Eric Barry.

The new year begins with an all-Russian program, and featuring a violinist who some maintain is the best of his generation: Gil Shaham (pictured below, courtesy of Luke Ratray). It has taken DeMain and the MSO administration at least fifteen years to secure this booking. Yes, he will perform one of the ultimate solo warhorses, the Violin Concerto of Tchaikovsky, but not to worry…I heard Shaham play that same work nearly twenty years ago in Santa Barbara, and I was astonished at how fresh he made the work sound. I fully expect him to do so again. On either side of Shaham’s wizardry, DeMain has programmed the suite from Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges and the lesser heard of Rachmaninoff’s two mature symphonies, the Symphony No. 3.


The program of February 16, 17 and 18 give us a Rossini overture and one of the world’s Top 10 (maybe Top 5?) symphonies, the first of Brahms. If you think you’ve heard it enough and stay home, then you’ll miss another stellar soloist who we can only be grateful likes coming back to Madison, cellist Alban Gerhardt. And no, he’s not going to give us Dvorak or Schumann or Saint-Saens, but the far less often heard Cello Concerto of William Walton.

The always stimulating “Beyond the Score” feature returns in March, so far for one performance only on the 18th. This time the masterpiece under the microscope is the Enigma Variations of Elgar. If you haven’t been to one of these events yet, you need to; with entertaining scripts brought to life in this case by James Ridge, Colleen Madden and Brian Mani, with Norman Gilliland as narrator, we are guaranteed to learn a bunch about both the composer and probably his most famous work. And after all the clues about the enigmas are explored, the MSO will perform the entire work after intermission.

April 13, 14 and 15 will see the return of another artist who apparently likes Madison as much as the audiences like him, violinist Augustin Hadelich, and again, we will enjoy a semi-neglected work, the Violin Concerto of Dvorak. DeMain also conducts an intriguing piece of Benjamin Britten, the Sinfonia da Requiem, and fittingly enough, Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, “Spring.”

The concerts on May 4, 5 and 6 bring the season to a powerful conclusion, with the MSO debut of one of America’s great pianists, Christopher O’Riley. He will delight us with the Piano Concerto No. 22 of Mozart, and then DeMain will lead the Madison Symphony Chorus and soloists in a stunning 20th-century choral work, the Glagolitic Mass of Janacek.

If you’re keeping score at home, there are eight 20th-century works on seven programs (putting aside the “Madison Symphony Christmas” and “Beyond the Score”). If some of those are still on the tamer side of “modern” music, they still represent works that should be heard more often, and in some cases never done by the MSO until now. But the real bottom line is that every program has a balance between the tried and true for the more conservative subscribers, and something that should interest the more curious. Besides, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you can’t please all the people (or subscribers or critics!) all of the time…

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