return to MSO history page
Please note that this chapter, now over 20 years old, will be superseded by a much more exhaustively researched book on the orchestra's history.  I began work on this project after retiring in 2018, with an eye towards completion before the orchestra's 100th anniversary in 2026. I have left the following largely unedited from 2000. However, in October 2020, I did make a few small changes - correcting a few mistakes and clarifying a few things that have come to light since I wrote this two decades ago. - M.A. October 2020

Third Movement
The Johnson Era, 1961-1994
by Michael Allsen

From Walter Heermann to Roland Johnson
In early 1960, Walter Heermann, who was in his eleventh season as Music Director of the Madison Civic Music Association (MCMA) - the umbrella organization for the Madison Civic Symphony and the Madison Civic Chorus - was informed that he would have to leave his post at the end of the 1959-1960 season.  Since 1928, MCMA's Music Director had been paid by the Madison Vocational and Adult School (later MATC), and Heermann had reached the Vocational School's mandatory retirement age of 70.  After a very public outcry by MCMA's board and supporters, the Vocational School and MCMA reached a cordial agreement that allowed Heermann to stay on for one additional year, through the end of the 1960-61 season.  This would allow the MCMA some fourteen months to conduct a search for Heermann's successor.   A search committee was appointed in March of 1960, and there were several candidates discussed by the MCMA Board in the summer of 1960.  As these informal inquiries were being made, however, Heermann was making calls to a former student named Roland Johnson, who was then teaching at the University of Alabama.  Johnson was not officially mentioned as a candidate until September, but it is clear that Heermann had Johnson in mind as a possible successor from the first.

Johnson was initially quite hesitant about leaving a secure academic position at Alabama, but he was also well aware of Madison's reputation as an excellent place to live and raise a family:  it was this very period that Life and other national magazines began to praise Madison as one of America's most "livable" cities.  And Heermann was persistent - according to Johnson:  "Walter kept after me...he had to work hard to talk me into it."  There was also a delayed promotion at Alabama that convinced Johnson that it might be time for a change.  He and his wife Arline visited Madison over Thanksgiving weekend in 1960, and the Board almost immediately offered him the position.  By January of 1961, Johnson had accepted, and agreed to begin as MCMA's Music Director for the 1961-62 season, the first year of a remarkable 33-year tenure.

Heermann remained in Madison until his death in 1969, but remained quietly in the background as Johnson put his own mark on MCMA.  Johnson remembers that the two of them performed together for the very first Women's Committee meeting of the 1961-62 season.

Roland Johnson
The orchestra's third conductor was born in Johnson City, Tennessee in 1920.  He studied violin as a child, and was talented enough to win a statewide prize at age 15.  He received a scholarship to the Cincinnati College of Music, and studied violin with Emil Heermann.  He became even closer to Emil's brother, Walter, who conducted the college's orchestra, and became something of a protégé and assistant conductor of the orchestra.  The conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Eugene Goossens, offered Johnson a position in the orchestra in 1941, but the war intervened and Johnson enlisted in the Navy.  He wryly notes that his "great contribution to the war effort" had more than a little to do with his musical training.  Johnson was in charge of training sonar operators for anti-submarine operations.  The crude sonar technology of that time used a series of three different pitches to indicate the relative location of a target, and Johnson taught sonar operators to sing the opening pitches of the popular Irving Berlin song White Christmas as a guide to destroying enemy submarines. While stationed in Key West, Florida, Johnson made his conducting debut, leading a performance of Handel's Messiah with a volunteer chorus and orchestra of Navy personnel and community members.

After the war, Johnson returned to Cincinnati for graduate work in violin and composition, and also studied at the Juilliard School and Tanglewood in the late 1940s.  When Walter Heermann left Cincinnati in 1948 to take the position of Music Director of the MCMA, Johnson took over his post as conductor of the college orchestra.  In 1952-53, he won a Fleischmann Fellowship, and spent a year in Europe, studying performing, and serving as assistant to conductor Hermann Scherchen.  When he returned to America, Johnson took a position at the University of Alabama, where he remained until leaving for Madison in 1961.  At Alabama, he had a multifaceted appointment, teaching violin and voice, conducting the chorus and orchestra, and playing in the faculty string quartet.  It was in Alabama, that Johnson met his wife, Arline Hanke, a singer and director of opera at the University.

Johnson's personality seems to have made him perfect fit for the position in Madison.  Genial and friendly, he was able to work well with orchestra and chorus members and was able to project an inviting image to the community for MCMA.  Though he was perfectly capable of being gruff and demanding in rehearsals, his usual approach to music making was more collaborative.  He was occasionally criticized by musicians in the orchestra for his rehearsal technique and conducting style, but even those musicians who may have had musical differences with Johnson express deep respect for him.

Like Prager and Heermann, Johnson also held a dual appointment as Music Director of the MCMA and Supervisor of the Music Department at Madison Area Technical College.  Johnson had a friendly and positive working relationship with Norman Mitby, MATC's Director from 1960-1988, a relationship that was fundamentally important to MCMA.   Johnson worked throughout his tenure to expand the music offerings at MATC, hiring teachers for class piano and guitar, and teaching many classes himself.

Today at 80, Maestro Johnson is vigorous and active:  obviously enjoying his retirement and taking particular joy in his grandchildren.  He continues to conduct, recently leading the Madison Opera's production of Brundibar, and returning to the MSO's podium to conduct the world premiere of John Stevens's Jubilare! to open this 75th Anniversary season. [Postscript: Roland Johnson died in Madison on May 30, 2012 at age 91.  Maestro DeMain programmed a special work in tribute to him at the opening concert of the 2012-13 season, the Adagio for Strings by Madison composer John Stevens.]

MSO Pops program, May 5, 1962

The Orchestra and Chorus in the 1960s and 1970s
In thinking back over his move to Madison in 1961, Johnson remarked: "I had no idea then what a wonderful thing I was moving into."   His predecessor had left him a competent semiprofessional orchestra and an accomplished chorus.  Though Heermann remained a respected figure, and was well-liked by members of the orchestra, the difference in energy level between the 71-year-old Heermann and his 41-year old successor was palpable and MCMA's supporters were encouraged to expect great things.  According to James Crow, a longtime member of the viola section, and eventually a president of the MCMA Board:  "There was a sort of quantum leap [in the quality of the orchestra] right after Roland came, just as there was later when John DeMain took over."   The discipline of both orchestra and chorus had been rather relaxed under Heermann, but Johnson instituted much higher standards of attendance and musicianship in both groups.

Johnson also arrived at an opportune time in the musical history of Madison - a period of dramatic expansion at the University's School of Music.  The influx of artist-level faculty had begun in the 1940s and 1950s, with the residency of the Pro Arte Quartet, and the hiring of pianist Gunnar Johansen.  In the 1960s, virtually every studio position at the University was filled with musicians who were nationally-known  soloists or had played with America's major orchestras.  By the 1970s, most of the principals of the orchestra were University faculty.  In the 1970-71 season, for example, faculty occupied the Concertmaster's chair (Thomas Moore) and principal chairs in several other sections:  viola (Martha Blum), cello (Lowell Creitz), flute (Robert Cole), oboe (Harry Peters), clarinet (Glenn Bowen), bassoon (Richard Lottridge), horn (Nancy Becknell), trumpet (Donald Whitaker), trombone (Allen Chase) and timpani (James Latimer).  These faculty also brought their students into the orchestra, and by the end of Johnson's first decade as Music Director, the orchestra was effectively transformed from an almost exclusively community group to an integration of "town and gown."   He also drew upon University faculty as soloists:  Johansen performed eight times with the orchestra during Johnson's tenure, and vocalists Bettina Bjorksten, Lois Fischer, Ilona Kombrink, Samuel Jones, and David Hottmann were frequent soloists. In addition, most principal chairs were given significant solos, as were pianists Leo Steffens, Arthur Becknell, Howard Karp, and Paul Badura-Skoda.

Madison had an impressive number of fine instrumentalists and singers who appeared as soloists.  However, hiring internationally-known soloists for the orchestra's regular subscription programs was unusual until the later 1960s, when a larger budget, buoyed by ticket sales and increased community and business support made it possible.  Beginning in this period, each season would typically feature one or two "superstars."  Mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, alto Maureen Forrester, tenor Richard Tucker, and baritone John Reardon were all featured soloists in orchestra concerts of the 1960s and 1970s, as were violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Kyung-Wha Chung, and Ruggiero Ricci, and cellists Raya Garbousova and Zara Nelsova.  Orchestra concerts featuring pianists are always popular, and MCMA was able to bring in some of greatest virtuosos of the day:  Van Cliburn, Mischa Dichter, John Browning, Earl Wild, James Tocco, Claudio Arrau, Emanuel Ax, Lorin Hollander, Christina Ortiz, and Alicia de Larrocha all appeared with the MSO during these years.

Johnson's programming took a step away from the rather conservative approach of his predecessors.  Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven were there of course, but in the 1960s, nearly every season featured a couple of strikingly modernist works.  Pieces by Messiaen, Schuman, Leuning and Ussachevsky (the Concerted Piece for Tape Recorder and Orchestra), Martin, Foss, and others were programmed in these years. The orchestra and chorus also gave early performances to works by established composers, in some cases, the first midwestern performances of works that have since become standard repertoire:  Barber's Die Natali, Poulenc's Gloria, and Britten's War Requiem. Audience reaction was mixed, even to relatively well-established 20th-century works.  According to Robert Palmer, longtime manager of the orchestra, "We could be chided for doing something like Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra."   However, the MCMA's programming continued to leaven its regular mix of standard Classical and Romantic repertoire with a liberal sprinkling of more adventurous works.

Premieres were nothing new in the history of the orchestra, but works by Sigfrid Prager, Sybil Hanks, Oskar Hagen and others premiered by the orchestra through the 1950s were hardly pieces of the avant garde.  Johnson actively sought out commissions, and premiered some eighteen works with MCMA's  groups, culminating with the Madison Opera's performance of Shining Brow. The orchestra also gave first performances of works by Lee Hoiby, Robert Crane, Stephen Chatman, Alec Wilder, Gunnar Johansen, John Harbison, Crawford Gates, and Michael Torke.   Boston-based Gunther Schuller had a particularly close relationship with the MCMA, founded on a longstanding friendship with Johnson.  The orchestra premiered three of his works and gave early performances to three others.  Johnson's final commission for the orchestra and chorus was Daron Hagen's Joyful Music, performed at the holiday concert in 1993, and revived again for this season's "Holiday Spectacular." 

live performance on WHA-TV in 1974
By the end of Heermann's tenure, the annual routine of MCMA programs was well-established:  a yearly series of four free concerts, two of which would include the chorus, and a spring Pops program.  The tradition of an annual Young People's program, reinstituted by Heermann in 1949, had quietly lapsed during the late 1950s.  In Johnson's first season, the MCMA's regular series expanded to five concerts, and the number and types of programs performed each season steadily expanded over the next 20 years.  In particular, the MCMA began a tradition of community outreach with widely-varied programming. In the later 1960s and 1970s, for example, Johnson established a series of "Neighborhood Family Concerts,"  designed to get the orchestra out of the downtown area and into other parts of the city.  These programs, held at a different local high school each season, featured light repertoire designed to be inviting for families.  Many programs were broadcast by Wisconsin Public Radio, and in the middle 1970s, the orchestra was featured in two live broadcast concerts from the studio of Wisconsin Public Television.

In 1962, Johnson reinstituted the annual Youth program with a tremendously successful concert featuring beloved TV personality Captain Kangaroo, beginning an unbroken series of annual youth concerts that has continued to the present day.  In the 1966-67 season, the orchestra began to offer two youth programs each year.  Funding and promoting youth programming became one of the main missions of the Madison Symphony Orchestra League (MSOL, formerly known as the Women's Committee).   Youth soloists were occasionally featured in these programs, but in 1974 Evelyn Steenbock, a great supporter of both the orchestra's youth programs and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, established an endowment for an annual competition and scholarship award for promising young instrumentalists.  The first "Steenbock Awards Program" in April 1974 featured three young soloists - pianists David Askins and Tania Heiberg, and violinist Sharan Leventhal - and dozens of young musicians were featured at these springtime concerts in succeeding seasons.   In 1986, a parallel competition, the Youth Soloist Awards was established to showcase young musicians at the annual Fall Youth Concerts.  Many of the musicians who have been featured soloists at the MSO's youth concerts have gone on to successful musical careers, and four of them - Cynthia Bittar, Laura Burns, Katie Kretschman and Annaliese Kowert - are in the ranks of the orchestra in the 2000-2001 season.

Since 1940, all of MCMA's concerts, with the exception of the annual benefit Pops programs, had been offered to the public free of charge.  Any change in this well-established tradition was bound to be controversial, but by the middle 1960s, it was increasingly apparent that the orchestra and chorus would need to begin charging for their programs if MCMA was to continue growing.  In the 1966-67 season, the two choral programs were ticketed, while orchestra programs remained free.  In the following season, it was necessary to purchase tickets all of MCMA's regular series.   It was at this same time that the orchestra underwent a name change:  since 1926, it had been known as the Madison Civic Symphony, but in 1966, it was officially designated the Madison Symphony Orchestra.  The MCMA's chorus retained its "Civic" designation for several more years, until it was finally renamed the Madison Symphony Chorus in the 1983-84 season.

The Pops tradition that began in Heermann's last years continued in the 1960s: the venue moved to the Dane County Youth Building, and the concert became a large-scale fundraising event for the MSOL.  The concerts themselves became more "upscale," featuring nationally-known artists, either as soloists or guest conductors.  The May 1968 program, for example, was lead by Mitch Miller, whose Sing Along With Mitch variety show had been a television hit all through the 1950s and early 1960s.  Virtually every Pops concert after that featured star performers:  William Walker, Leroy Anderson, Peter Nero, Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan, Marvin Hamlisch, and others appeared with the MSO in Pops programs over the next decade.

Johnson worked much more actively with the chorus than his predecessor, and expanded its role.  He had worked for several years as a choral conductor in Alabama, and was obviously comfortable working in this very different medium. By tradition begun in the 1930s, Handel's Messiah was an annual event, but Johnson broke with this tradition early in the 1960s to explore other great choral works.  Messiah was still heard once every two or three seasons, but December chorus and orchestra concerts began to feature a much broader repertoire: works by Schütz, Britten, Respighi, Vaughan Williams, Bach, and others.  Johnson also began to program a major choral work on the closing concert of nearly every season.  By the late 1970s and 1980s, the chorus usually appeared in three programs each season, twice on the subscription series, and in a special choral concert presented in the late spring, typically a program dedicated to the works of a single composer.

January 1971 program in the Masonic Temple Auditorium  
(Soloist Ilona Kombrink singing Ravel's Shéhérezade)  

One of the most important changes in the workings of the MCMA during Johnson's tenure was the development of a professional support staff.  Until the 1960s, the non-musical activities of MCMA - marketing, fundraising, ticket sales, etc. - had been handled by volunteers.  During the 1950s, a volunteer from the Board, Helen Supernaw, was in essence the entire "staff" of the MCMA.  This situation continued in the early 1960s: Helen Hay, who arrived in town at about the same time as the Johnsons, took over from Supernaw as the manager of the orchestra's day-to day activities, staffing the office, and even publishing the MCMA's newsletter Variations on the Theme of Civic Music.  Hay, Ann Crow, and other volunteers handled virtually everything.  With a budget that was rapidly burgeoning in the mid 1960s, the situation began to change. A few years later, over the objection of Hay, who was "perfectly happy" working as a volunteer, the Board converted her unofficial job to a part-time, paid position, in anticipation of continued growth and the need for a professional staff as a regular part of the annual budget.  Hay eventually stepped aside from the management of the orchestra, but continued to work as a volunteer in many areas.    The first full-time Manager of the MCMA was John Reel, who served for two seasons, from 1968-1970.  He was succeeded by Winifred Cook, Manager from 1970-1975.  In 1972, the staff expanded to two with the hiring of Jean Feige as secretary, a position she held for over twenty years.

The staffer who had the greatest impact on the growth of the MCMA in this period, however, was Robert Palmer, who served as Manager from 1975 until 1992.  A rather relaxed administrator, Palmer was nevertheless able to market the orchestra in an effective way, and oversaw unprecedented growth in budget and orchestral activities in this period.  Palmer also brought a tremendous knowledge of repertoire and a good musical ear to the organization. He was generally respected by the members of an increasingly professionalized orchestra, and became a trusted partner of Johnson's in musical matters as well.  Palmer was also capable of adapting to changes in the orchestra's situation, particularly the move to the Oscar Mayer Theatre in 1980.  In an interview, Palmer admitted to being quite hesitant in the late 1970s about the Civic Center—in his words, "I was a soothsayer of doom and gloom."  However, when it became obvious not only that the Oscar Mayer was going to work as a venue, but that it presented tremendous opportunities for new programming, he directed his efforts towards exploiting those possibilities.  He pointed with pride, for example, to the enormous all-Wagner concert that opened the 1983-84 season as an example of programming that would have been impossible previously.  In looking back over his tenure as Manager, Palmer refers to it as a "labor of love," and expressed his pleasure at the orchestra's continued success.   Palmer's successor, Sandra Madden, brought a much more businesslike approach to management of the orchestra.  Under Madden, the administrative staff continued to expand, with full-time professional marketing, development/fundraising, and orchestra management personnel.

An even more fundamental change was the increasingly professional status of the orchestra.  With persistent prodding from Heermann in the 1950s, the MCMA had made some hesitant initial steps towards paying a few members of the orchestra, and Musician's Union members were paid for performances by the Musician's Performance Trust Fund (MPTF).  Johnson aggressively pursued this issue 0 he states that one of the very first "courtesy calls" he made after moving to Madison was to the local Union secretary, to explore ways of expanding pay for orchestra members.   Within a year, most orchestra members were paid a modest honorarium by the MCMA, under the guise of "baby-sitting money" and MPTF funds continued to fund concerts.  By 1970, everyone in the orchestra was paid on a "per service" basis by the MCMA for rehearsals and concerts, on a sliding scale that was dependent on ranking within sections and Union status.   Union membership was never a requirement, but the local Union did play a limited role in contract negotiations in the 1970s and 1980s.  In 1993, the Orchestra Committee, an elected body from the ranks of the orchestra, negotiated directly with MCMA to conclude a renewable three-year Master Agreement that remains the basis of the orchestra's contract today.  The effect of pay on the orchestra was immeasurable.  Johnson attributes much of the great increase in the quality of the orchestra's playing in the late 1960s and 1970s to the influx of fine players, but also to this change in status:  "You could see how much it changed their outlook and the pride that everyone took in what they were doing."

   concert in the Oscar Mayer Theater, 2003 (under John DeMain)
A New Venue
Another change occurred in 1980, with the completion of the Madison Civic Center.  The search for an adequate performance space was ancient history by the time Johnson arrived in Madison.   Under Prager, orchestra concerts had moved constantly from venue to venue, settling more or less permanently into the attractive but boomy confines of the Masonic Temple Auditorium in the late 1930s.  Under Heermann, the orchestra and chorus had performed almost exclusively on the cramped stage of the Central High School Auditorium.  This space, which was later renovated and renamed MATC Auditorium, remained the orchestra's primary home through the 1960s and 1970s, but Johnson occasionally  moved concerts to the Masonic Temple or the University Stock Pavilion.  Though the Stock Pavilion had fine acoustics and could seat many more audience members than any other space in town, it was impossible to forget that the primary purpose of this building was not music.  This was especially apparent during one of soprano Eileen Farrell's visits to Madison, recalls Johnson.  She arrived in 1969 to do a concert with the orchestra, which was moved to the Stock Pavilion to accommodate a large crowd.  When the orchestra arrived for the dress rehearsal, they found that someone had neglected to move a large wagon filled with very ripe manure, at the far end of the hall, but still "stinking to high heaven."  When she arrived at the rehearsal, Johnson apologized profusely to Farrell about the smell.  According to Johnson, she was a consummate professional about the whole thing until she started to giggle uncontrollably during the first number (the aria "Ritorna vincitor" from Aida), eventually breaking down completely, and commenting that "At least my vocal chords are being well-fertilized."

The Madison Civic Center was part of Madison's urban renewal efforts in the 1970s: every bit as much a contentious political issue in its day as today's Overture Project.  The Civic Center was constructed around the Capitol Theater, a 2000-seat auditorium built in the 1920s, the heyday of Vaudeville and silent movies.   Renovated as the Oscar Mayer Theatre, a multipurpose hall, this space became the orchestra's home.  The MSO inaugurated the new hall on February 23, 1980, with a gala concert that featured soprano Martina Arroyo, and a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No.9.   While some of the acoustical problems of the Oscar Mayer Theatre became obvious immediately, this new hall opened up enormous new possibilities for the orchestra. The stage of MATC Auditorium was simply not big enough to accommodate a large chorus and orchestra. MATC Auditorium also severely limited the size of the audience:  most MSO concerts in the late 1970s were given twice to accommodate more audience members.  With a stage more than double the size of MATC, the Oscar Mayer Theatre could hold the large forces - 300 or more musicians - necessary to perform works like the Verdi Requiem or Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky Cantata.   The string section grew by several players within a few years of the move to the Civic Center, and the chorus grew as well.  Like the change to professional status, the move to the new hall - a grandly designed and impressive space, despite its shortcomings - also had the effect of kindling pride in orchestra and increasing musical quality.

Opera in Madison
When the Johnsons arrived in Madison in 1961, many of the singers associated with MCMA wanted to resurrect the tradition of staged opera in the city. Prager lead fully staged annual productions for six years during the 1930s, but the tradition languished during the war years.  In the later 1950s, Heermann had begun to program "concert versions" of operas using mostly local soloists.  The team of Roland and Arline Johnson came prepared with an enormous amount of background in opera.  Roland had conducted several works while in Alabama, and Arline was already a noted stage director.  Lois Dick, Robert Tottingham, Warren Crandall, Joanna Overn, and other Civic Chorus members approached the Johnsons to ask for their leadership in creating an opera company under the auspices of MCMA.

The first production was not a staged affair:  members of the newly-created Madison Civic Opera Workshop sang the second act of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus at the annual Pops concert in May of 1962.   Audience response to this performance, which was the finale of a program called "A Night in Vienna," was enthusiastic enough to warrant a more ambitious production the next season.  The Opera Workshop was reorganized as the Madison Civic Opera Guild, and the organization became another distinct group under the umbrella of MCMA. Unlike the its companion organizations the Symphony and Chorus, the Opera Guild had its own Advisory Board, and always maintained a degree of independence from MCMA . (Some thirty years later, the division became formal with the incorporation of the Madison Opera.) In March of 1963, the Opera Guild staged La Boheme at the East High School Auditorium.  This was the first of an unbroken annual series of successful staged performance.  By 1967, demand was such that a staged revival of Die Fledermaus played for six performances, three of them out of town.  Arline Johnson remained the Opera's stage director until her death in 1988.  Ann Stanke, a member of the orchestra since the 1950s, and long an opera supporter and rehearsal pianist for the Johnsons' productions, took an ever-larger role in the operations of the company, eventually presiding over the Madison Opera's separation from the Symphony.

The Opera's growth during the Johnson years paralleled developments in the Symphony.  Virtually all of the soloists in the 1960s and early 1970s were local singers and University faculty members volunteering their time.  The early years featured pieces from the standard repertoire - Tosca, Falstaff, Carmen, and other familiar works - but there was also a rather adventurous experimental side, as the company performed several relatively obscure works:  Britten's Noye's Fludde (1963), Poulenc's Voix Humaine (1964), The Jumping Frog of Caleveras County by Lukas Foss (1968), and Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (1969).   In 1974, the company moved into a more professional venue, the Wisconsin Union Theater, and hired its first out-of-town soloist, Milwaukee-based tenor Daniel Nelson.  Nelson sang the role of Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly, and appeared in several subsequent Opera and Symphony performances.  In 1980, the Opera mounted two performances of Aďda in the Oscar Mayer Theatre, as part of celebrations for the newly-opened Civic Center.  This production of Aďda, the grandest of all grand operas, was something of a landmark:  certainly the most ambitious performance the Opera had attempted to that time, their first performance in Italian, and the first production that featured internationally-known soloists, most notably Lorna Haywood and Marvelee Cariaga.  This performance also marked the company's first widespread attention on the national scene, with favorable notices in Opera News.

Johnson's last years as Music Director and Shining Brow
By the 1990s, the Madison Symphony Orchestra was recognized as one of America's leading regional orchestras.  The quality of the orchestra's playing had reached a relatively high plateau: the woodwinds and brass, led in most sections by University studio faculty, were particularly good.  The string section, much larger than it was in the early 1960s - but still too small by most accounts to balance the back half of the orchestra - was occasionally criticized for ensemble and intonation problems.  Though the quality of MSO performances could occasionally be uneven, the ensemble was capable of excellent playing and several particularly fine performances from this period stand out in this writer's memory:  Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses and Brahms's Symphony No.4 in the 1990-91 season, the Dvorák Symphony No.8, Brahms's Violin Concerto (with Itzhak Perlman), and the Bach Mass in B minor, all from the 1991-92 season, and a thoroughly enjoyable performance of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky film music with the film itself in 1994.  According to Johnson, "...[by then] the orchestra was capable of playing just about anything I put in front of them."   The number of subscription programs had increased to eight, and the orchestra performed two Youth concerts, two Pops programs, and numerous special and Opera performances each season.

Premieres and contemporary music had long been part of the orchestra's repertoire, but attempting to mount a newly-composed grand opera was not in the realm of possibility until 1988.  This was the very period when Frank Lloyd Wright's "Dream Civic Center," designed fifty years earlier was once again under public discussion in the city.  After several attempts to fund and build the project, Wright's proposed Civic Center had failed in 1962.   In the late 1980s, Wright's design - possibly reconfigured as a convention center - was once again on the table.  The idea to create an opera based upon Wright's life can be attributed to Terry Haller and Marvin Woerpel, members of the Madison Opera's Advisory Board, but Johnson also took up the challenge with enthusiasm.  At Johnson's urging, MCMA's Madison Opera selected a young Milwaukee-born composer named Daron Hagen, and Hagen in turn contacted Princeton University poet Paul Muldoon about writing a libretto.  Another hurdle was to get permission from the Wright Foundation, a process that took nearly a year.

          Roland Johnson in 1994
The highest hurdle was financial: the decision to mount Shining Brow was a risky one.  While the cost of Madison Opera's productions had risen significantly during the 1980s, this was another order of expense altogether:  commissioning fees for composer and librettist, hiring a cast of nationally-known singers and a first-rank stage director (Stephen Wadsworth), set and costume design, and extra rehearsals needed to negotiate Hagen's difficult orchestral parts.   In the end, Madison Opera raised nearly $500,000 - approximately eighty times the entire budget of MCMA when Johnson arrived in 1961 - from private donors, businesses, and foundations, including a prestigious grant from Opera America.

Some three years in the making, Shining Brow was a challenging work, dealing with the most tumultuous years in Wright's career.  Michael Sokol was given the complex role of Wright himself, and Carolanne Page created the role of his lover Mamah Cheney.  The orchestral parts were particularly difficult, featuring virtuoso passages for nearly every instrument. The premiere on April 21, 1993 was a great success.  Critics from across the country attended the performance, and reviews were generally very favorable:  Muldoon's rather densely-constructed libretto came in for criticism from some quarters, but Hagen's music, resplendent with quotations, allusions, and, most importantly, good tunes was applauded by nearly every critic.  In particular, reviewers praised the quality of the performance, both on stage and in the pit, and lauded the "plucky little company"  that took on the monumental task of putting it on stage.  One side benefit for the orchestra in particular was the forging of a close relationship with Daron Hagen, who would compose three more works for the MSO.

It is obvious that Maestro Johnson considered Shining Brow to be a valedictory achievement:  in March of 1992, when the opera was just notes on paper, he announced his forthcoming retirement at the close of the 1993-94 season. Johnson's 33 seasons as MCMA's Music Director - nearly half of the orchestra's 75 years - saw an almost total transformation of the Madison Symphony Orchestra as an institution.  In 1961, the MCMA's groups were a venerable amateur institution in Madison:  though Sigfrid Prager had long since left the scene, his vision of the orchestra as a largely volunteer civic organization was still the ruling concept.   By Johnson's retirement in 1994, the orchestra was a fully professional regional institution.   Among musicians, community members, and critics alike, Maestro Johnson has been given the lion's share of credit for this transformation.
©2000 J. Michael Allsen - revised 2015 and 2020
last update: 10/17/20