Five years have flown; shall we shoot for 30?
I hadn’t thought about it until I sat down to write this review, but five years can really fly by at my age…2013 marked John DeMain’s 20th anniversary as music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and I was favored with penning an article for Madison Magazine in honor of the occasion. Whether by creative instinct or divine inspiration, the circumstances led me to wonder if DeMain had ever considered having his biography written. So I asked him—and five years later we are on the verge of having it published.
In a perfect world (about two years ago), I thought the book would be in hand for Friday night’s kickoff of his 25th anniversary season; it’s not quite there, but all the better: we can concentrate on the music.
Of course there are other tributes taking place, starting with a 10-minute video co-produced by Anders Yocum and Wisconsin Public Television. The “prequel,” leading up to DeMain’s move to Madison from Houston Grand Opera, was aired last Friday at the MSO gala (and available online here). The second part, being shown before each of this weekend’s concerts, focuses on DeMain’s years here in Madison, and there was a healthy emphasis on the artistic partnerships that have become such an integral part of the MSO’s impact beyond the cherished walls of Overture Hall (e.g., Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, Madison Youth Choirs, Hunt Quartet, HeartStrings, et al).
When DeMain took the stage for some live remarks, he wanted to be brief, and said one of the most telling things: “When they asked me about doing this video, I said ‘You can celebrate me, if you let me celebrate you.’ He went on to say that he meant not just the audiences, but the community at large, from the MSO board to the city as a whole.
The music began with a brisk “Fanfare Ritmico” of Jennifer Higdon. DeMain had programmed her blue cathedral just a few years ago, and her already impressive resume was boosted in 2015 by the premiere of her opera, Cold Mountain. This 2000 work quickly won over this listener (I’m predisposed, particularly after seeing her opera in Santa Fe three years ago). More to the point, more than sixty CDs represent her work, and I look forward to finding the time to explore more of her vibrant output. As for the orchestra, it was a brief test (albeit with superb and varied percussion), but boded well for the bulk of the evening.
When DeMain came to Madison in 1994, he knew that the string section presented the greatest challenge. He mentioned in the video (and for Chapter 9 of my upcoming bio of the maestro) that he immediately held voluntary auditions when he arrived, so as to really know the strengths of each individual player. That was the start of a major renovation of the strings, and for at least a decade now, DeMain takes perhaps greatest pride in the strings collectively. Certainly they were tested in the maestro’s own selections of movements from Prokofiev’s stunning ballet, Romeo and Juliet.
And the strings of 2018 passed every test with flying colors…and dynamics and precision. I have been a fan of the complete work most of my life, acquiring the Lorin Maazel/Cleveland Orchestra complete recording more than 40 years ago. I can listen to it without the dancing as if it were a two-hour-plus symphony. What’s more, Michael Tilson Thomas made his own arrangement that lasts nearly 80 mimutes; at about 34 minutes, DeMain’s was but a tease for hard core fans—but necessary given the overall program.
But the six movements were more than enough to validate that the MSO has never sounded better on opening night since I first covered them in 2010. In the “Juliet the Young Girl” second movement the violins scamper, skitter and stutter, and led by concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, the MSO violins provided both precision and sumptuous sound. If there any miscalculations, it was in the movements’ order: Tybalt’s Death preceded the Balcony Scene, which resulted in the final three movements coalescing into one long slow movement (albeit a delicious sonic journey).
While most recent seasons have featured the orchestra and its principal players without a name guest artist, scheduling this year meant that superstar pianist Emmanuel Ax would headline the opening weekend. What’s more he was performing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. Full disclaimers: This work has been my all-time favorite piano concerto nearly all my life, and Ax has been one of my favorite pianists for thirty years or so. Not that I’ve seen him much in person, but a recital at UCLA with cellist Yo-Yo Ma in the 1990s stands out as one of those performances I’ll never forget. Suffice it to say that my hopes and expectations for Friday night’s performance were sky high.
And why not? DeMain has demonstrated in recent seasons with his programming of Brahms’ symphonies that he has a real gift for the master’s works, imbuing a sense of vocal phrasing within the grandiose structures. Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto is nothing if not symphonic in scope, with four movements instead of the usual three, sprawling to a sumptuous fifty minutes of music.
The expectations were met, Ax with his superb technique able to lend a sense of clarity to the piano lines that so often emerge turgid and thick in less skilled hands, and DeMain and the troops virtually in lock step with Ax’s vision of the masterpiece. The full Overture Hall audience apparently had much the same expectations and response: when Ax first took the stage, he had to wait for an extended and vociferous ovation to die down before preparing to play. One wondered if indeed a pre-performance standing ovation might break out. He and the orchestra earned every bit of the quick and upright ovation that followed the closing chords; it took four curtain calls before Ax was coaxed back to the keyboard, delighting us with a liquid Chopin nocturne (Op. 15, No. ?; perhaps the one in D-flat Major. Come on, I’m a clarinetist!). Following that, the ovations were so insistent, that Ax finally took Greenholtz by the arm to indicate that the performance was, unfortunately, at an end.
It should be noted that at the initial applause, Ax and DeMain brought principal cellist Karl Lavine to the front for a bow as well. The slow movement turns from symphonic breadth to chamber music intimacy beginning with a limpid cello solo. Linda Kimball and the horn section she leads also earned major kudos. Clarinetist Kai-Ju Ho also had a bow, and therein lies a short tale.
J.J. Koh has been the principal MSO clarinetist now for a couple of seasons…and recently secured the assistant principal position in the Milwaukee Symphony. Koh will play the majority of the eight subscription concerts this season, but this weekend is one he will miss. Ho is studying with Kyle Knox…best known presently as associate conductor of the MSO and conductor of WYSO…but once upon a time he was assistant principal clarinetist of the Milwaukee Symphony! Long and winding roads aside, Ho navigated the sustained lyrical passages of the Brahms slow movement and the challenges of the Prokofiev with the aplomb associated with a more experienced veteran. We look forward to hearing Koh again…but will also welcome future appearances by Ho.
Along the same lines, there was some wonderful tenor sax playing in the Prokofiev, but we don’t know who to credit. I spent a year at Los Angeles Opera in a position that included editing the program books, so I do know up close and personally the pitfalls of producing those essential documents. But it is a continuing frustration that the MSO does not provide real time info regarding players who are subbing in principal chairs, or making a “cameo” appearance as required by a certain work.
Other than that—and it is a minor quibble—this was a perfect opening to DeMain’s quarter-century celebration. DeMain was asked more than once in 2013 how long he planned to stay, and his answer was simple: as long as the MSO board and Overture Hall audiences would have him. Well, we’re only seven years away from the orchestra’s centennial season…