John DeMain

Music Director

mso music director john demain

In his 30th season as music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO), Grammy and Tony Award-winning conductor John DeMain is noted for his dynamic performances on concert and opera stages throughout the world. American composer Jake Heggie assessed the conductor’s broad appeal, saying, “There’s no one like John DeMain. In my opinion, he’s one of the top conductors in the world.” In January 2023 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Opera Association, the NOA’s highest award.

During his three decades in Madison as the MSO music director, DeMain has consistently raised the quality of the orchestra by introducing blind auditions and continuously expanding the repertoire to encompass ever more challenging and virtuosic works, including the highly-acclaimed performances of the complete symphonies of Gustav Mahler. DeMain also oversaw the move into the world-class Overture Hall and expanded the subscription season to triple performances.

His active conducting schedule has taken him to the stages of the National Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the symphonies of Seattle, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Columbus, Houston, San Antonio, Long Beach, and Jacksonville, along with the Pacific Symphony, Boston Pops, Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Orchestra of Seville, the Leipzig MDR Sinfonieorchester, and Mexico’s Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional.

Prior engagements include visiting San Francisco Opera as guest conductor for General Director David Gockley’s farewell gala, Northwestern University to conduct Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, and the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in D.C. to conduct Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars. In 2019, he conducted the world premiere of Tazewell Thompson’s Blue at the Glimmerglass Festival to critical acclaim — he “drew a vibrant performance from an orchestra of nearly 50 players; the cast was superb.” (The New York Times) He was also planning to conduct the premiere of Blue at the Washington National Opera in March 2020.

DeMain also serves as artistic director for Madison Opera and in their 2023–2024 season conducts Tosca, The Anonymous Lovers, and Candide. He has been a regular guest conductor with Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center and has made appearances at the Teatre Liceu in Barcelona, New York City Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Los Angeles Opera, Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera, Virginia Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Aspen Music Festival, Portland Opera, and Mexico’s National Opera.

During his distinguished 17-year tenure with Houston Grand Opera, DeMain led a history-making production of Porgy and Bess, winning a Grammy Award, Tony Award, and France’s Grand Prix du Disque for the RCA recording. In spring 2014, the San Francisco Opera released an HD DVD of their most recent production of Porgy and Bess, conducted by John DeMain.

DeMain began his career as a pianist and conductor in his native Youngstown, Ohio. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at The Juilliard School and made a highly-acclaimed debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. DeMain was the second recipient of the Julius Rudel Award at New York City Opera and one of the first six conductors to receive the Exxon/National Endowment for the Arts Conductor Fellowship for his work with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

DeMain holds honorary degrees from the University of Nebraska and Edgewood College and he is a Fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. He resides in Madison and his daughter, Jennifer, is a UW–Madison graduate.