Music News & Reviews

Classical pianist is busy performing and staging music festivals

Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott has been busy the past few months.

Granted, few people will shed tears for the musician, who managed to avoid several bleak winter weeks at her home in New York by staging festivals in sunny South Florida and Phoenix.

But that is work, not vacation, so her thoughtful husband got her a gift certificate for a spa.

"I'm waiting at the spa, and what comes on over the speaker system? The slow movement of the Ravel concerto," she says, referring to Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major. That's the piece she will play Friday night with Scott Terrell and the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra. "I almost picked up and left the spa and said, I need to go home and practice now."

McDermott stayed and got her spa treatment. But she also has been at work on the Ravel concerto, with inspiration from her most recent project.

In 2008, McDermott teamed with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and conductor Justin Brown to record two CDs with all of George Gershwin's works for piano and orchestra. It had McDermott delving into Gershwin's jazzy rhythms, which proved to be a good basis for returning to Ravel's Gershwin-inspired concerto.

"It has this jazzy character to it, which you don't associate with Ravel — you associate that with Gershwin," says McDermott, who recently played a concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra pairing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with the Ravel Concerto. "It was enlightening for both pieces for me, to have them back to back like that, because Ravel had this tremendous admiration for Gershwin and Gershwin for Ravel."

The American Gershwin and French Ravel were contemporaries in the early 20th-century. And according to an oft-told story, Gershwin visited France and asked to study with Ravel, who replied, "Why be a second-rate Ravel when you're a first-rate Gershwin?" In light of the American composer's hugely successful career, Ravel said he was the one who should be taking lessons.

Of the first movement, McDermott says, "Now my approach is a little more muscular, rhythmically oriented, where I am emphasizing the rhythmic element more than I used to. It's very funky writing, with Ravel putting these accents on the off beats.

"The third movement I view lighter, as if it has has this scintillating, sparkling, champagne kind of sound to it — bubbly and sparkly," McDermott says. "And the second movement, I just try to luxuriate in the repose of the writing. How he came up with this, I have no idea."

In addition to the jazzy, trans-Atlantic conversation in the concerto, McDermott likes the collaboration that the piece demands between the soloist and orchestra.

"I firmly believe every concerto is a form of chamber music," McDermott says. "It's not a matter of the soloist coming in saying, this is how we will play it. It's a dynamic interaction between the solo part and orchestral part. ... Obviously, I come in with a plan how I like to play a piece, but within that, there is a whole variety in how it can be approached."

McDermott spends a lot of her time these days with chamber music, as part of ensembles with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, with her sisters (violinist Kerry McDermott and cellist Maureen McDermott), or now as impresario of a pair of tropical music festivals.

Part of the success of those festivals, she says, is in providing a great environment for musicians.

"Almost any of my colleagues, if I said in the end of January, do you want to come to Key Largo for a week and Curaçao for a week?, the answer's yes," McDermott says of the Ocean Reef Chamber Music Festival in the Florida Keys and the Avila Chamber Music Celebration in the Caribbean. "The reason musicians like to go to festivals isn't money, because we don't make a lot of money. We want to go because of who else is going, because when you put together a group of great musicians who have great chemistry, they become even greater. And when you put the musicians living close to each other so we can spend a lot of time together, because that's what we love, it works."

That has, in large part, been the formula for the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass, which will bring McDermott back to Central Kentucky for the final weekend in May at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

"I've heard about it, and it sounds similar, this magical environment where everyone is together," McDermott says. "It contributes to the music-making when you have great friendships among the musicians."

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