Interview with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott

Anne-Marie McDermott
SF Piano Examiner

By Elijah Ho

Anne-Marie McDermott is the Artistic Director of the Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado. An Artist Member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, she has dazzled audiences with "excellent musicianship" for over 25 years. A former pupil of Constance Keene and the late John Browning, she and her sisters form the McDermott Trio.

EH: You made your Carnegie Hall debut at twelve. What are your memories of the early years before Susan Wadsworth discovered you ? Were there serious moments of doubt with respect to a career that students today can relate with ?

McDermott: Absolutely, and that’s a wonderful question. I started playing at the age of five, and by nine or ten, I was getting some local recognition, being told by people that audiences seemed to like what I was doing. I was a shy kid, and my only voice was at the piano. All I cared about was showing off, learning scores with as many black notes as possible. I had the naivety and idealism of youth, not understanding how the real-world worked. To a certain extent, I can be grateful for that. There are plenty of years to know what the real-world is like.

Neither of my parents were musicians. I have two sisters who are professional musicians – Kerry is a violinist with the New York Philharmonic, and Maureen is a cellist. I was going to school part-time by the age of eleven, and when the invitation arose to audition for the Mendelssohn G minor concerto at Carnegie Hall, I was just so excited. As far as getting up and playing the piano on-stage, I was a complete ham; as far as speaking in public, however, not so much (laughs).

My mother died of breast cancer just before I turned fifteen, and that had a huge impact on me. My sisters and I had gone to Moscow that June – my very first trip away from home - and Kerry was competing in the Tchaikovsky competition; I was accompanying her, at the time. We didn’t really have an awareness of what was going on, as we were quite sheltered. When we came back, our mother died about a month later.

I lost total interest in what I was doing. It was just too shocking for me and I didn’t care. I kept playing only because I was a good, disciplined child. I continued learning, going to my lessons, etc. By sixteen, I was out on my own, I had moved to New York, and was accompanying everybody for their juries and recitals at the Manhattan School of Music. But I had no aspirations of my own, and I would miss classes at school. Eventually, I was let go by the school. I was eighteen and headstrong.

As it turns out, some of the people I was accompanying at the time were musicians with Young Concert Artists. One day, Susan Wadsworth called me on the phone and said, “You might want to audition yourself”. And so I did, and that changed everything. I got this bug for playing real concerts, at real fees, and I was driven and inspired by what I was doing - the joy I felt when I was younger. So I took an unlikely path getting a career that way.

EH: What role did the late John Browning play in your musical development ? As an aside, how is your musical memory?

McDermott: Up until I was ten, I really didn’t care about technique: all I wanted to do was play fast and loud. I had a wonderful Italian teacher who made me write fingerings for every note, and it was around that time that I began becoming obsessed – trying to stretch my hand, etc.

I started with John when I was about fifteen, and he was one of the great people in my life. He pushed me very hard. I would play a Prokofiev Sonata for him, thinking it was loud and great, and he would yell at me, “No! No!” I loved him and his playing, and he really taught me a lot about voicing – which he was obsessed with – about pedaling, and about not having an ugly sound. He taught me about having a rich, sensuous sound, and I remember blushing many times at our lessons (laughs). He gave me so much, was so honest, and all of it stays with me to this day.

To tell you the truth, I also learned a lot from my sister Kerry’s violin teacher. I had been following her to her lessons from the age of ten, and she studied with the Russian pedagogue, Raphael Bronstein, who commented on my playing as well. We were playing the Brahms G major Sonata, and he pressed down on my hand at the piano, until it hurt. It took me years to understand what he meant, but he was in fact trying to teach me about legato, how it also comes from the diaphragm.

Regarding memory, I’m really lucky because I’ve never memorized anything consciously. I’ve always been very disciplined about practicing– and I find even more so, the older I get – and by the time I need to perform a piece, it’s already stuck in the memory. I’m also completely obsessed with what I do! (laughs) The great Josef Hofmann, who was often traveling on trains, talked about the value of playing through a piece in your head - which is quite difficult to do – and the more you do it, the better you become at it.

For me, it’s very much about the aural aspect, hearing the harmony and the density of the harmony. I’m not seeing the score, or even really feeling what my hands are doing. It’s mostly about imagery - emotional imagery. If I’m playing Debussy, it might be the image of a lake, with the moon beaming down on the stillness of it. I sometimes imagine playing with no bones in my hands, for example. In Prokofiev, I might picture an army marching closer and closer. The imagery somehow helps me to transcend the mundane thinking, and it helps inspire me to create the image at the keyboard.

EH: One name I was surprised to hear in an interview of yours was that of Art Tatum’s. What does this pianist mean to you, and what are your thoughts on his place in the music history of the twentieth century ? I read in 2013 that his childhood home in Toledo is simply abandoned.

McDermott: Oh, that’s heartbreaking! That’s unbelievable to me. When I listen to him, it is such a humbling experience, and yet, so inspiring. His sense of innate rhythmic impulse is just out of this world. It all sounds so free! He didn’t push the sound of the piano; it was a pretty light touch, which I’m a fan of. Like Alfred Cortot or Dinu Lipatti, my mouth just hangs open when I listen to him. I do listen to him quite often, and the ease he had at the instrument was mind-boggling. You know, I tried studying Jazz in my teens, and I was terrible at it. I stopped trying, and instead, just decided to be a fan (laughs). I observe and admire, as I do with tennis (laughs). There are some incredible jazz players today. It’s such an incredible American art form.

EH: You’ve performed the works of numerous contemporary composers. Is there a little or lesser-known composer whose works you’d recommend for students to have a look at?

McDermott: I think it’s so important for young people to learn new repertoire. It’s fun, inspiring and empowering to learn a piece of music that you can’t find a record of. Charles Wuorinen, who is 75 now, is a legendary, very eclectic American composer. I commissioned Charles a few years back, and he sent me the score of his Fourth Sonata. I started learning the score, and I felt I was five years old again! No matter how much I practiced, it wouldn’t stick until the following day. It was so difficult, and it took me three months until it finally started sticking. After that, it became a ride, both in my physical memory and emotional memory. It was a great challenge, a responsibility to listeners who had never heard the piece before. These things open up a whole other side of your piano-playing and creativity. I’ve premiered many works over the years. We’re not all good at everything - some are better at some things than others - and it’s up to you, as an artist, to find how impactful you can be with certain repertoire.

EH: Beyond playing a hundred concerts a year, you are also the artistic director of the Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado. My following question comes in light of comments made last year on the subject of female conductors and leadership. Are there difficulties that you’ve experienced or felt, hurdles you’ve had to overcome as a woman in your field ? Are there problems that female music students need to be made aware of?

McDermott: That’s a wonderful question. I think nowadays, it’s very different from the way it was when I began my career. These days, there are so many young, brilliant female musicians: Yuja Wang, Alisa Weilerstein, etc. Regarding conductors, it’s true: there really aren’t that many female conductors. But that’s changing. I don’t know many women who want to be conductors, but there are some very great ones out there.

At eighteen, it was hard for me to convince many conductors that I could play Brahms or Rachmaninoff, the big repertoire pieces. And it was something that compelled me, while learning Prokofiev, for example, that you don’t have to be Richter to be playing these pieces. There’s nothing that replaces hard work, and I work hard. In this day and age, I don’t think there are the same hurdles from 25 years ago, and I’m very happy to see this. It’s, of course, not only in music. Women are becoming more powerful in the business world, too. For me, the preconception about women, I just don’t feel it. Earlier in my career, I did, but I also feel that I’m forging my own path by having a life in music. Everybody’s path is different, and there’s a lot that you cannot pay attention to.

You have to have faith, you have to work hard and believe in what you have to offer. But I do believe that the business is much more competitive than it was. There are so many more talented young musician competing for things now. It’s a tough business, and I wouldn’t want to tell anybody otherwise. Raphael Bronstein, who I mentioned earlier, I remember him saying, “if you have an idea in your head of anything else you’d like to do in life, do that!” Being a musician entails 110% of you.

EH: Many of the great composers of the past advocated the study of other art forms. You’ve mentioned that you’re quite a voracious reader. I’m curious to know, what is the connection between the various art forms, and how does it all help with the music-making?

McDermott: The language of music is a complete language unto itself. It expresses a range of emotions that’s probably far greater than any spoken language. By enriching ourselves in other art forms, it helps us to think about things in different ways. I’m a fan of contemporary art, of going to museums and seeing how different artists see things differently. This really opens you up, spiritually, and for me, being comfortable in the medium of music, I try to express all of that. It’s hard for a teenager to realize that being a musician is more than playing your own instrument. It’s an attitude about life, about learning, and being sponge-like in how you go through life and observe what’s around you. Look at a gorgeous sunset, internalize it, and use it when you need it.

I work privately with some students, and I once worked with a brilliant fifteen year-old student. She practiced and practiced and did little else. I told her to stop, to go for a walk and think. Practicing doesn’t accomplish everything.

EH: February 9, you’ll be performing in a Bay-area program called Pianists in Paris, with two-piano works by Debussy and Gershwin. What can you tell us about the works you’ll be performing?

McDermott: It is such a wonderfully fun program. I’m a piano lunatic, as you know, so I love it. The arrangement of Gershwin’s An American in Paris is the original for two-pianos. This version was actually written before the one scored for orchestra, and it is so concise, with no wasted notes. Yet, it has everything that the orchestral score has. I actually prefer it, because there’s more freedom for the pianist.

The other work I’ll be doing is rather amazing. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and I have been friends for 25 years – we met when we were very young, we don’t see eye to eye on everything, and it makes for some very interesting conversations (laughs). He’s recording constantly, and I have so much admiration for him and his career. He was obsessed with Debussy’s Jeux, which isn’t an easily accessible orchestral score. The storyline is a little crazy - the culminating point is when a boy and two girls have a triple kiss under moonlight – and it’s a bit of a psychotic piece.

Jean-Efflam became obsessed and transcribed the piece for two-pianos; the arrangement is incredible. He and I have played it several times in the past. The very first time, it was hard to put together. It’s technically very difficult, and he guided me along. We’ve now lived with it for several years, and when we come together to play it, we’re really able to have this abandon and freedom, which is really what the music demands. I was so thrilled that David Finckel and Wu Han programmed it for us.

EH: A question I ask every pianist – because each has a hand that’s slightly different – which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for your hand?

McDermott: The thirds. For me, that’s the killer. I’ve worked on it on and off for years, but I’ve never played it in public. There are some who can play it without sweating it, but that’s not me. I’ve tried, and tried again, but no (laughs).

EH: Anne-Marie, thank you for taking the time. Best of luck to you and Jean-Efflam this Sunday.