DeMain’s Gift to “Lenny”

Madison Symphony joins the global celebrations of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday


Leonard Bernstein’s 100th  birthday fell on August 25 of this year, but if you think the Madison Symphony and John DeMain were late to the party in celebrating this still larger-than-life icon, don’t fret. Some locales began after August 25, 2017—the year leading up to his 100th, and others will follow all the way up to next summer.

Any why not? If one considers “Lenny” in a big picture perspective, there has been no other American musician whose influence and achievements can match his. In crafting his MSO program to honor Bernstein, John DeMain took something of a big picture approach, mixing some hit tunes with some more cerebral Bernstein, and included a tribute to him as a conductor by programming Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7—the last work Bernstein conducted.

DeMain of course had a deeper relationship than most with Lenny, beginning with a brief but memorable encounter in 1971, the one summer DeMain studied at the Tanglewood Festival. The catalyst for their future encounters came in New York in 1976; following one of DeMain’s performances of the Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy and Bess, Bernstein came back stage to tell DeMain: “I’ve waited 40 years to hear ‘Porgy’ done this way; you’ve done it—now I don’t have to.” In 1980, when a major revival of West Side Story was based on the premise of reuniting the original creative team (Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents), Lenny had no problem with helping it get up and running—but had no interest in conducting it. He hand-picked DeMain, who went on to lead over 80 performances. Their relationship culminated in 1983, when Houston Grand Opera presented the world premiere of Bernstein’s only full-length opera, A Quiet Place, again with DeMain at the helm (the two of them are pictured above, during that time).

DeMain shared some of these points in his intermittent comments Saturday night in Overture Hall, and also had numerous insights into the specific works which neatly complemented Michael Allsen’s lively program notes. The opening was a taste of what DeMain was up to last month when he missed the second set of MSO concerts and Madison Opera’s opening: Barcelona got a semi-staged version of Bernstein’s landmark Candide; we settled for the overture.

It was a bright and breezy beginning, unexpectedly marred by some problems in the trumpet section. My first response was surprise that perhaps there was some disagreement in intonation, and then the even more unlikely possibility of wrong or missed notes. While the ensuing dances from On the Town also had plenty of bounce, swagger and bluesy-ness, the trumpet problems didn’t entirely dissipate. There was some great saxophone playing, and as usual I cannot give credit by name. I promise no more carping on this personal quibble of mine, but I do have one concrete and economical suggestion: could the MSO management put a placard near their table in the foyer listing guest players who are not regular members of the orchestra? Again, I understand the program books are printed well in advance (the current one contained all three of the season’s opening programs), but there may be a few other folks in the audience who would like to know about.

Credit DeMain with making the major work of the first half one that is far more often discussed or mentioned, than played: the Symphony No. 2, “Age of Anxiety.” Bernstein might have called it a symphony but it looks like a piano concerto. Of course we can put semantics aside; it is simply a substantial and serious work that contains elements of both forms. It is based on the poem by W.H. Auden, and in a real sense, the work is “pure Lenny.” That is to say, it is hard to imagine any other composer (let alone one who would soon write Candide and West Side Story) become so obsessed with Auden’s 100-page lyrical response to World War II and the global consciousness left in its wake that he would have to express it in music.

The piano part represents Bernstein essentially inserting himself into the story of four lonely and bewildered people who ultimately decide that faith—even a tattered one that one clings to as a desperate last measure—is at the crux of human existence. Musically, we had our own Christopher Taylor as the pianistic protagonist, and there could hardly be a better choice in combining a cerebral approach with the technique required, and the great jazzy stretch that comes in the middle of the piece. Again, both Allsen’s detailed notes and DeMain’s comments went a long way in preparing unprepared listeners. As for yours truly, I have a vague memory of hearing the work on an old LP years ago…and not liking it very much. This was my first chance to hear it live, and again, there is no substitute for the live concert experience. It’s not that I fell in love with the piece this time, but am grateful to have had a committed and urgent performance unfold in front of my eyes and ears. As has been the case so often in recent seasons, the orchestra seemed to relish the new challenge.

It was at a Tanglewood concert that Bernstein conducted the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven in his last public appearance. By all accounts it was a masterful reading, made all the more poignant by his rapidly declining health. DeMain paid tribute with his own masterful performance, starting with an ensemble that now hit on all cylinders. As usual, the strings collectively were wonderful, and there was much fabulous wind playing, with all the brass now in full-throated power.

The most notable aspect regarding DeMain’s conducting however was his choices of tempi, often a murky area in Beethoven, despite his meticulous use of metronome markings. This was particularly telling in the famous second movement—what would normally be a “slow” movement is marked “Allegretto”—and DeMain found just the right pace without sacrificing weight. The scherzo as well caught flight but could also sustain tension in the contrasting sections; the outer movements were splendid. For the finale I wrote a single word in my notebook: fire.

Lenny lives on, not that there was any doubt of that. Happily for Madison music lovers, so does DeMain—and there’s no doubt he’s got plenty of conducting left in his baton.

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