Mid-career dive into Gershwin; Anne-Marie McDermott will play his works in her Phila. appearance.

Anne-Marie McDermott
Philadelphia Inquirer

NEW YORK - So often, George Gershwin is performed by the young: His music defined the 20th century when it was youthful, and his own death at age 38 left him perpetually young in the public's mind.

Yet the Philadelphia Orchestra's resident Gershwin specialist at the Mann Center on Friday is a pianist who hated being called a "young artist" when in her 30s and is better known for complicated piano sonatas by Prokofiev and volatile chamber-music concerts with violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

In other words, Gershwin wasn't a likely mid-life combination with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, 46. "I never would've thought of it!" she said the other day in her Upper West Side apartment, in her typically rapid-fire, exclamatory manner. Imagine Picasso being hired to design a Broadway show.

But that's just what Bridge Records did, approaching her to record all of Gershwin's rhapsodies and concertos in an attractive package with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Released 18 months ago, the disc was hailed as among the best - no doubt prompting the Philadelphia Orchestra to engage her for an all-Gershwin concert in what is her curiously belated orchestra debut.

The key to her approach isn't treating Gershwin as a respite from Prokofiev, but as an extension of it. "You need to play around with it to some degree, but you also have to respect how it's written," she says. "Most recordings, I did not like - either they're too over the top or too dry and clinical. The music is fun and flirty and dramatic. There's a really huge palette there."

Consider that Piano Concerto in F cadenza that plunges deep into the world of Debussy - much to McDermott's delight. The fact that she's able to make that plunge with Gershwin is one reason Bridge approached her for the album. Says label president Becky Starobin, "She can shift moods on a dime."

Salerno-Sonnenberg hears similar McDermott attributes: "When either of us takes a turn that perhaps wasn't rehearsed, she has the innate ability to adjust to that instantly and make it work musically." On really hot nights, their performances are like a downed high-tension line, spewing sparks everywhere.

McDermott is often named as one of the best American pianists over 40. If that opinion isn't as widely held as it might be, it's her unusual programs. One recent New York concert had her premiering the dense, finger-busting Piano Sonata No. 4 by arch-modernist Charles Wuorinen - surrounded by cheery, seldom-heard Haydn. Does McDermott see her manager's eyes roll when such programs are announced?

"Are you kidding? Most of the time! Big time!" says McDermott. "Straight-ahead programs - Bach, Mozart, Schumann - I'm not so into that model anymore. I don't think that's what audiences are craving so much anymore. I'm in the middle of my career. I need a challenge. Complete cycles of Prokofiev ask a lot of audiences. I can't say crowds are big for those concerts, but the people who are there get immersed in it."

Her next immersion experience may be the lurid, mystical, quasi-Satanic Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, though she isn't sure if her husband could live through that, not to mention her dog, which abandons McDermott's practice room when the music gets noisy.

That kind of individuality was probably in the cards for her, growing up in Long Island as a kid who was socially shy but compensated by playing piano fortissimo. She and her two musician sisters were partly home-schooled, in an era when that was less common. Because her sisters are string players (a violinist and a cellist, allowing them to form the McDermott Trio), McDermott learned their repertoire so she could accompany them and attended their lessons as well as her own.

Her resumé became a model of instructional overload. Primary teachers were John Browning and Constance Keene, and she was in master classes with some of the strongest personalities of her day - Leon Fleisher, Rosalyn Tureck, Menahem Pressler.

Abruptly, all that stopped at age 18. "I was a really good student, very disciplined and very obedient. If somebody said to play a phrase like this, I'd do it. If they said 'play this repertoire,' I'd memorize it.

"I wasn't making any choices myself," she says. "I didn't really understand how to be a musician; I was just a good follower. I had all these great things told to me about music making but wasn't taking any responsibility for myself. I was fed up with being a good student. I wanted to learn repertoire I wanted to play and not be told what to do."

Like now? "Kind of," she says. "If I were my own daughter, I don't know how I would accept that."

Though McDermott looks like the more conventional half of her chamber music duo with the flamboyant Salerno-Sonnenberg, the pianist actually may be more of an iconoclast. She has strong opinions about current colleagues; Leif Ove Andsnes is one of the few she looks up to. Though both Gershwin and Prokofiev left recordings of their own works, McDermott finds little inspiration in them. "They're cold," she says.

All that is part of an interpretive process that, at least with Salerno-Sonnenberg, involves more talking than playing. They'll discuss a piece at length - in a cloud of cigarette smoke, before McDermott quit - and only need to play it once, such is their instantaneous understanding.

That extends to extra-musical emotional matters that can affect a performance. Salerno-Sonnenberg recalls a tour when she was having a hard time: "She carried the tour. I cannot tell you how appreciated that was. I often feel the burden is always on me, as I suppose it should be. But just knowing you are partnered with such an all-encompassing musician, and such a strong one, is a gift."

Though McDermott's career has been steady, you wonder if she has ever envied Salerno-Sonnenberg's, with its EMI recording contracts and Tonight Show appearances. Not now, she says: "Probably 98 percent of my repertoire is something I've chosen and feel passionate about. And as far as I'm concerned, there are 40 more years to come."

Still, there are periods when she loathes what comes out of her piano, no matter how much she's poured into it, and no matter how many people say she's wonderful. "You still go back to your hotel feeling bad," she says. "But inevitably, those times turn out to be periods of growth."

Isn't it also possible the performances she hates are just dandy? "That's true," she says. "But what would we be as creative people if we didn't constantly challenge what we're doing and how we're doing it?"