Maestro John DeMain, in a large Santa hat, leads the combined choirs and orchestra at the Madison Symphony Orchestra's Christmas concert.

Q&A: John DeMain leads A Madison Symphony Christmas

The Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s holiday concerts are always its most popular events of the year. For the first time. Wisconsin Public Television brings this festive celebration into homes across the state, filmed live at Madison’s Overture Hall.

A Madison Symphony Christmas premieres 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 17. Or tune in for an encore broadcast Christmas night: 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 25.

John DeMain“Our annual Christmas concert has become a very meaningful experience for everyone involved,” says Music Director John DeMain. “One cannot help but leave the Hall with a feeling that the holiday season has begun. And hopefully, you will have a big glow in your heart.”

Read on for our exclusive Q&A with Maestro DeMain to learn about how this inaugural broadcast came together.

In addition to the orchestra, led by DeMain, the performers include:
Cecilia Violetta LópezSoprano
Kyle KetelsenBaritone
Madison Symphony ChorusBeverly Taylor, Director
Madison Youth ChoirsMichael Ross, Artistic Director
Mount Zion Gospel ChoirTamera and Leotha Stanley, Directors

WPT: This is your 25th season. How have these concerts changed?

JOHN DEMAIN: Over time, I’ve tried to create some aspects that follow a kind of tradition. For example, I do an opening processional; this year, it will be “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The guest soloists and the choruses all participate to get us off to a  thrilling start.

At the end of the first half, we perform the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. That, and the annual appearance of the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir and the singalong, don’t change. People love it.

Members of the Madison Youth Choir wear a menorah cap and an an elf hat When I started out, Mt. Zion wasn’t a part. But I realized that they could do a fabulous take of Christmas carols, in a gospel style, and that became a magical relationship.

I’ve had Madison Youth Choirs with me from the beginning. Sometimes they’ve sung since they were young boys and girls. They go through high school and they come to me and say that they sang all those years they were growing up.

The high school group of the Madison Youth Choirs under the direction of Mike Ross is so wonderful and professional in their delivery, that I had them join with the Madison Symphony Chorus on several numbers. They add and enhance to the sound.

I’ve tried to focus on the community aspects: diversity and community. We’re bringing all these elements together. That final singalong has something like 300 people in the chorus, 100 people in the orchestra, all onstage. You get the real feeling of community.

What is your personal favorite holiday piece (whether you’re performing it or not)? 

That’s a good question! The clinically correct answer is “whatever one I’m conducting.” You have to love what you’re doing so you can express that.

I love our version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It’s a really fun jazz version of that piece, with the youth choirs and the soloists. It really swings. We also have “Winter Wonderland.”

But most of the carols and music focus on the meaning of Christmas. Our audience seems to like that; they want to sing the traditional carols.

How do you make these concerts fresh every year?

The hardest part about this concert is trying to decide what to program from year to year. Trying to make it just different enough for the orchestra so that it challenges the orchestra and the choirs.

So I explore the various possibilities: the great composers, such as Bach, Handel, Schubert. Puccini wrote a massive Missa de Gloria, Berlioz wrote a Christmas cantata. Then I look at contemporary composers. Sometimes I’ve commissioned new pieces.

I’m going to talk to Leotha Stanley, the director of the gospel choir. This year he’s doing “O Holy Night” and two other pieces, including an original song. For the past couple of years, he’s created original pieces.

Members of the Mt. Zion Gospel ChoirIn the second half of the concert, I interview the soloists, and I enjoy my interactions with them. They mostly come from the opera world; they’re phenomenal, charming. Sometimes these soloists will come with their own orchestrations.

We also have featured soloists from the orchestra; this year we’re featuring violins in an incredibly gorgeous slow movement of the Bach Double Concerto.

These elements are what I like. Featuring these performers in various configurations. In a way, it’s full of surprises. I’m working this puzzle, and we plan all of these elements separately, so I never quite know how it’s going to turn out until that week of rehearsal.

What do you hope the broadcast brings to life for viewers?

Our Christmas concert is lit so beautifully, the stage is so gorgeous, the talent is so wonderful. I’ve always thought it would make great television.

I am just thrilled that Wisconsin Public Television is going to do this. And I know it will come off in viewers’ living rooms as warm, fun and beautiful.

What I hope to do… I look at the elements of the two-and-a-half-hour show and think about how to represent them in this one-hour program. I want to make sure that the chorus is featured, we’ll choose a classical piece from each one of the soloists… and in the second half, I would hope that we’d have some fun, and again feature the high school chorus. And of course, the opening number. It offers a great variety.

What’s the perfect viewing experience?

Depending on what you like to drink… an eggnog or a hot toddy or a nice cup of tea, and a fire in the fireplace, if you have one. It’s “warm and schmoozy,” as my wife likes to call it. Especially on Christmas night, after a day of eating. A little bit of relaxation will be perfect.

It’ll be nice to share with family. This is the one concert where children of all ages come to the auditorium to experience it. I know a lot of children have come to study music as a result of this concert. They see the orchestra on stage, they perform music that they love… This event is absolutely an event for the whole family.

Does your Santa hat get in the way of your conducting?

It weighs a lot! If I put it on right and just let it drape in front of me, it doesn’t get in the way. It’s hot underneath there, though; I’ll tell you that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *