Being Maestro: On the job with John DeMain

At a recent Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) rehearsal, musical director John DeMain prepares his 96-piece orchestra for its final concert of the season.

Shaking hands with the first violinist, he steps onto the podium, flips through the musical score in front of him, and gives instructions only musicians would understand. “At 161 we’re in four; 191 is in two; 221 is back in two; 222 is back in four.” Several musicians take notes.

With a swift movement of his baton, “Strike Up the Band” begins.

Then it stops. Something wasn’t right.

“At 84, both of you should be playing,” he instructs a couple of musicians. “Two trumpets alone, please, 83.”

They repeat measure 83, playing individually, and the entire orchestra joins in. DeMain’s arms flail and his motion picks up with the tempo.

The song finishes with a flourish. “It ends bum, ba-bum,” DeMain reminds. “Finish with ba-BUM!”

Satisfied, he moves on to the next number, “Symphonic Dances,” which the public may recognize as a medley of songs from the musical West Side Story.

This was only the second time this orchestra has played this program together, DeMain says the next day, at his home. “They played some parts last night that were just stunning.”

At his piano, he studies for the next rehearsal, reading the scores and playing along. “I’ve got every instrument of the orchestra here that’s used for this piece,” he says, making mental notes. It’s late morning, DeMain’s favorite time of day. “I learn music best in the mornings,” he says, shooing his dog Maxi out of the room.

With the first of the season’s final three concerts just two days away, rehearsals are meticulously planned. “You have to be fast,” DeMain says. “You’re operating with very high-level musicians. They can sight read, and they also practice very hard.”

Later this afternoon, he’ll meet with the symphony’s artistic advisory committee. It’s a welcome chance for him to communicate with the musicians, and vice versa. They may discuss concerns, make suggestions for the future, or ask about business decisions the musicians are rarely privy to. “We take for granted that the orchestra understands what we’re doing, but there’s no time for that during rehearsals.”

MSO musicians belong to a union and negotiate with management for salary and working conditions. Consequently, rehearsals are two and a half hours long “and not one second more,” he emphasizes. “If you’ve got three measures left to go to the end of a piece, too bad. But for that two and a half hours, they have agreed to give you every ounce of themselves.” The onus is on him to prepare accordingly.

His goal is to perfect potential trouble spots, not necessarily perform complete songs. “I view the orchestra and everyone sitting out in front of me as the equivalent of a doctoral candidate on their instrument, and I treat them that way.”

The musicians were presented with the music two weeks ago. They arrive prepared, and DeMain respects their time. “There’s only one thing they want to do in that two and a half hours, and that’s play. I’ll say as little as possible.”

For the most part, his arms and body language do the talking, using sweeping motions coupled with facial expressions that the audience rarely sees. He’s not just swatting flies with his baton, he jokes. He keeps the beat and sets the tempo, directing not only the musicians playing at the moment, but also the musicians who are not playing, which helps them keep track of where they are.

“I use a colored pencil scheme,” he explains. Green for winds; red for brass; black for percussion/harp, piano, and soloists; and blue for strings. If he knows a bass clarinet player, for example, has a prolonged silent period, DeMain will flag his own score. “They have to count rests and not get lost, so I’ll put a little ‘BCL’ on my music. It helps me give them a cue when they’re up.

“They’ll look up and if they see the whites of my eyes, they’ll feel confident that they’re in the right place. If I can’t achieve it with my arms, then I’ll articulate. But there are no unnecessary lectures.”
With the full orchestra, DeMain estimates that last night’s practice cost about $15,000. With four practices followed by three performances, efficiency is essential.

MSO rehearses in the evenings, leaving DeMain’s days available for personal appearances promoting MSO or the Madison Opera, where he also serves as artistic director. It’s a part of the job he takes seriously. “I know I’m the chief dog and pony show,” he says. “I’m the guy.”

The opera’s two performances of Dead Man Walking, he noted, were preceded by two months of donor cultivation.

That’s the difference between the arts in America versus Europe, he explains. In Europe, government subsidizes the arts, leaving artists free to perform whatever they want, whether or not the public attends or approves. In America, while the government provides necessary funding support, private donations and ticket sales drive financial viability.

“I’m in charge of the art, not finances,” he acknowledges, “yet every artistic decision is a financial one.”

DeMain is currently working on the program for the 2015-16 season. He’s identified about six guest soloists he’d like to invite, but he cannot sign any to a contract until Overture completes its performance schedule.



He’ll design a season using several guidelines. What will the guest artists be performing and how can the symphony bolster that? Which exciting pieces has the orchestra never performed, or not performed in many years? Are any famous composers celebrating birthdays or anniversaries worth celebrating in song?

“I like to make sure there’s something in every program that people can identify with,” DeMain says. “Something for the casual listener and something for someone who wants to be challenged. It’s a question of proportion. If I did eight 21st century pieces, the audience would rebel. But if I do one or two, they might be interested. I like to keep the audience guessing.

“We have to take [the audience] on a journey that doesn’t pander to them, but that recognizes the big spectrum of American taste — with an eye to the fact that if we tee off our major donors, we won’t be around. So far, it seems to be working.”

DeMain, world renowned for his interpretation and production of Porgy & Bess, travels frequently, leading symphonies and operas in concert halls worldwide.

Just prior to Dead Man Walking, he was in Virginia for six weeks, working with the Virginia Opera on Carmen. He came back for an MSO Beethoven concert, then started the Dead Man Walking rehearsals. After Sunday’s final concert in Madison, he’ll leave for two months to conduct the opera Showboat in San Francisco. He will return briefly for MSO’s 20th annual Concert on the Green fundraiser on June 16, then fly back to finish out the Showboat run.

On those lengthy trips, DeMain enjoys immersing himself in the local culture and exploring new cuisines. His schedule usually opens up once performances begin, allowing his wife, Barbara, to join him.

It’s a busy life for a 70-year-old, but it’s safe to say DeMain isn’t your typical septuagenarian. While he’s had a few bouts of bursitis in his shoulders over the years, he has also learned the importance of physical therapy, icing, and stretching before and after performances.

And what of retirement? “I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had. Do I want to lift heavy bags of mulch or do this? Both are fun, and gardening is a wonderful stress relief, but from a selfish point of view, conducting brings instant gratification. It’s thrilling, and a privilege.”

But he is happiest when he is alone at the piano, “uncovering the secrets of a composition, analyzing its structure, the harmonies, and which instruments will play which notes.”

“Why would I quit?” he asks. “For what? Okay, on my bucket list I’d like to go on a safari, but my wife doesn’t like lions or tigers,” he laughs.

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