Prolific pianist enjoys A-list career

Anne-Marie McDermott
Cincinnacti Enquirer

By Janelle Gelfand

She's won major awards. She made her Carnegie Hall debut at age 12. She's recorded complete works of Prokofiev, Bach and Gershwin. And she's been on the A-list of concert lineups, from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to Spoleto USA.

What you may not know about Anne-Marie McDermott is her unconventional route to a high-profile career.

"I feel fortunate that my career has this combination of lots of chamber music, which is so close to my heart, and orchestral dates, and my other great passion, playing recital programs," McDermott says. "I try to figure out what projects do I want to focus on that really matter a lot to me. Because when something matters to you, that's when you really shine."

McDermott is soloist in works by Clara and Robert Schumann to open the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra season on Sunday in Memorial Hall and Anderson Center.

McDermott's musical palette is broad and her schedule is dizzying. She's just performed Beethoven's "Triple" Concerto with violinist Chee-Yun and cellist Lynn Harrell with the Dallas Symphony. After Cincinnati, she'll play several all-Chopin recitals, followed by the Midwest premiere of Charles Wuorinen's "Flying to Kahani," with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

Next month, she'll record Wuorinen's Fourth Piano Sonata, which one writer described as "dense and finger-busting," for Bridge Records. She's also recording four Piano Concertos that Mozart scored for piano and string quartet with the Daedalus Quartet.

Up next: Learning the complete works of mystical composer Alexander Scriabin.

McDermott was born in Queens and raised in Long Island, where she and her siblings were partly home-schooled by her mother, a former Irish step dancer. She was taken to her first concert when she was 5.

"I remember this shining black instrument onstage with a spotlight on it. I have learned since then that it's not glamorous, but at that age, it was how powerful it was, how glamorous it was," she says.

When she and her sister, a violinist, became serious about music at age 9, her mother negotiated with the Catholic schools diocese to allow them to be home part of the day.

"What I wanted to do was play the piano. I devoted the rest of the day to practicing," McDermott says.

She played her first Beethoven "Triple" Concerto at home, with her sisters. (Her sister Kerry is now a violinist in the New York Philharmonic.) At 12, she played the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto in Carnegie Hall.

"My mother learned along with us. It's incredible to me, how she made so many right decisions on our behalf, knowing nothing about the business. I can't imagine having any other life than I have. This is clearly what my passion was, and the fact that she helped me discover that, that's unbelievable," she says.

Then, at 15, her mother died of cancer.

"Everything was done on scholarship, and the family didn't have much money. I left home at 15," she says. "I just started accompanying everybody and their brother and sister for their juries, for their recitals. I was learning repertoire at record speed, and I didn't even have a bank account."

Fortunately, her talent attracted the attention of Susan Wadsworth, the founder of Young Concert Artists, an organization that offers management and other services for young artists. Its alumni include superstars Dawn Upshaw, Emanuel Ax and Pinchas Zukerman. Wadsworth asked her to audition, and then took the young pianist under wing.

"After losing my mother, I don't know if I would have ended up as a musician or not, if it hadn't been for Susan Wadsworth - she came in exactly at a time when I needed somebody to say, 'Hey, you can do this,'" she says. "She was a mentor, because I had no money, and it was down to finding someone to help me buy a new dress for my debut concert at the 92nd Street Y."

McDermott's career was launched at 18. College, for her, was out. Fiercely independent, she lasted just six months at the Manhattan School of Music.

But as a young artist, she worked with many fine teachers. She points to John Browning as being the most influential. Plus, he gave her the idea of taking a dog on the road. When her husband can't travel with her, McDermott carries her Maltese, Samantha, for company.

"I always joke that she's my therapist," she says. "When I rehearse with orchestra, she sits onstage with me in her bag."

Now, she's branching out again - this time, to something completely new. McDermott is the newly appointed artistic director of the prestigious Bravo Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado. It hosts the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Dallas Symphony, chamber music, solo recitals and a young artist program.

"It's an enormous and thrilling new facet to my career. It's exhilarating," she says.