Anne-Marie McDermott Works Her Magic on Chopin

Anne-Marie McDermott
San Diego Arts

By Kenneth Herman

We are now more than halfway through the La Jolla Music Society’s ambitious Chopin Bicentennial Celebration, so the initial excitement of the concept—presenting all the works of Chopin in concert—and the novelty of all-Chopin programs have worn off. What has become clear is that it takes performers with high-octane technique and inventive intuition to make this formula work.

Although the amount of Chopin’s piano music is indeed prolific, most of his pieces are rather short and structurally simple. He was adept at churning out reams of short dance movements, as well as concise nocturnes and etudes, but only a few sonatas, multi-movement works of a certain complexity. So I confess that my enthusiasm for another recital stuffed with sets of waltzes, mazurkas, and polonaises had ebbed.

The antidote to mazurka-overload came in the form of Anne-Marie McDermott, the brilliant, perceptive American pianist who played Friday (October 22) at Sherwood Auditorium. Her Chopin was alternately vivacious, even at times a bit over-the-top, brooding, introspective, jocular—you name it. She mined the panoply of emotional and mental states the composer fused into his music with a panache that was arresting, but never indulgent. And the stamina to maintain such passionate intensity over a two hour and 20 minute recital is astounding.

Outstanding was her electric “Ballade No. 1 in G Minor,” a favorite show-stopper of the old school Eastern European virtuosi: Vladimir Horowitz included it on his famous “return” concert to Carnegie Hall in 1965. But McDermott has an uncanny way of removing the grandiose overstatement of this earlier approach and replacing it with a more genial bravura, one that keeps the surprise and sparkle foremost.

I cannot think of anyone I would rather hear play the four Mazurkas of Op. 17. In these quintessentially Polish dances, McDermott knew intuitively when to linger and when to push forward, and she was never easily predictable. Sometimes the lift came at the apex of the phrase, other times at the cadence or in the deft reprise of an idea. Her constant shading and sculpting of these modest dances make them a continual delight to the ear and imagination.

The “Two Nocturnes,” Op. 48, offered atypical examples of this type of dreamy confection that Chopin did not invent (the Irish composer John Field owns that prize) but surely perfected. The C Minor Nocturne sounded more like a stately cortège, and the F-sharp Minor Nocturne unfolded an odd structure that wandered capriciously. McDermott made convincing case for both nocturnes.

McDermott’s choice of waltzes brought to her program a bit of familiar comfort food. Her “Waltz in E-flat Major,” always a popular recital chestnut, allowed her to flaunt her technical prowess in its brilliant traceries, and her unpretentious “Minute Waltz” clocked in at one minute and 20 seconds. She chose a bright tempo and impetuous attitude for her opening “valse brilliante,” the “A-flat Major Waltz” from Opus 34, choices that allowed a few notes to escape their proper places. But once settled in, her technique proved more than adept to each challenge.

Considering that McDermott’s recital was the opening program of the La Jolla Music Society’s winter season, I wondered why this was not an SRO crowd. She has been a popular, regular performer with the Mainly Mozart Festival here for many seasons and was featured in the opening concerts of the Music Society’s 2009 SummerFest. Among those who know piano virtuosos, she is a revered name. But perhaps she is simply not a celebrity with a rags-to-riches backstory like Lang Lang.

If you appreciate brilliant piano performance with heart and haven’t put McDermott on your “must-hear” list, I suggest you remedy that oversight immediately. I promise you’ll thank me when you hear her.