Flutist Demarre McGill to Make ChamberFest Debut

Demarre McGill.  Photo by Matthew Septimus.
Demarre McGill. Photo by Matthew Septimus.

This story by Jarrett Hoffman was first published June 19, 2017 at ClevelandClassical.com.  Used by permission. 

Demarre McGill has guts.

“I enjoy challenging myself — I like to feel as hungry and energetic as I did before my first job, when I was a student,” he said in a recent conversation. “I grow from being in that particular zone. And because of that, I can do something a lot of people would question — resign from a wonderful orchestra like the Dallas Symphony to play a one-year contract with the Met.” McGill served as acting principal flute of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra this season.

“I knew that after having that experience, no matter what the result at the end of the year, I would be so much better. So leaving a great job to grow tremendously is something I would do — that I did — in a heartbeat.”

For three days this week and next, the daring flutist meets ChamberFest Cleveland’s bold programming. After making his Cleveland debut on Friday, June 23 at 7:30 pm in “Hommage,” he’ll follow up with “Youth” (Sunday, June 25 at 2:30) and “Pierrot” (Monday, June 26 at 7:30), performing works by Bach, Popp, Connesson, Shostakovich, and Schoenberg across the three programs. See our Concert Listings for more details.

A winner of the Avery Fisher Career Grant, Demarre McGill has appeared as soloist with the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Pittsburgh Symphony, and has participated in the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Music@Menlo, and Marlboro Music. He has held the position of principal flute in the Dallas, Seattle, and San Diego Symphonies, as well as the Florida Orchestra and Santa Fe Opera Orchestra. Next stop: a return as principal of the Seattle Symphony after re-auditioning for and winning that position.

I reminded him of something he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2014: “I always have a good time wherever I am, to tell you the truth.”

“That couldn’t be more true,” he told me. “Life is funny, but I’m loving it. It’s so hard to get any of these orchestra jobs, so I’m grateful to be working, just to put it in simple terms. Being in the Met was awesome. I mean, it’s one of the great musical organizations of the world. It was so exciting day in and day out to be around these amazing instrumentalists and singers, and it was just a tremendous learning experience. But I’m happy to be returning to Seattle where there’s great energy and so many new faces. The orchestra’s sounding spectacular, and they’re known for fantastic, progressive programming. That was going on when I left, and they’ve continued it. I’m excited.”

McGill picked up the phone in San Diego, where his Myriad Trio was on break from rehearsing a new work by Avner Dorman for the 10th-anniversary season of Art of Élan, a chamber music organization McGill co-founded and co-directs.

“When we started Art of Élan years ago, we felt like we had the energy and ideas to bring in audiences that don’t normally feel invited or welcome in a traditional concert setting,” said McGill. “I can say, with hopefully not too much bias, that we’ve been doing that.”

The flutist tied the mission of Art of Élan to his upcoming trip to Cleveland, saying of ChamberFest, “I immediately thought, ‘this sounds fun, this sounds interesting, this sounds stimulating for the performers and also for the audience.’ They’ve assembled a great roster of musicians, and I can’t wait to be a part of it. And I love that I’m playing a few things that couldn’t be any more different.”

It’s obvious right away that there are many notes for the flute in Guillaume Connesson’s Techno-parade for flute, clarinet, and piano, but McGill said it lies well in the fingers. “Not saying it’s easy — it’s not — but it’s fun to play because it has so much energy right from the start, and it’s kind of relentless. I was so glad they were interested in programming it.”

McGill said that audiences shouldn’t expect to hear the Shostakovich they’re familiar with during the composer’s Four Waltzes for Flute, Clarinet and Piano. “It’s light-hearted and pure fun — nothing more, nothing less. I love playing it.” He described Wilhelm Popp’s Rigoletto Variations as a fun showpiece for the flute. “Especially after coming off my one-year stint with the Met, it’s great to play these melodies that I got to play a lot this past season.”

While he has performed Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in the past — “I absolutely love it” — McGill said this will be his first time playing Bach’s Cantata No. 209. “Years ago, my teacher Julius Baker would talk about his experience with the Bach Aria Group in New York. As a student, I tried to find as many of his recordings as possible, but I haven’t performed a lot of those works with flute and voice, so I’m really excited about that.”

Raised in Chicago, Demarre McGill has an incredible family background. His parents mortgaged their home five separate times to pay for lessons for him and his brother, Anthony McGill, now principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. Asked if he and Anthony get tired of answering questions about each other, Demarre laughed and said, “We get along, we like each other, so it’s ok.”

This past year was the first the brothers have been in the same city since Chicago. “I wish I could’ve spent even more time with him and his family, but the Met’s schedule being what it is — and he’s the busiest guy in show business. Still, it was amazing just knowing that he and his wife and their new daughter — my new niece — were so close.”

I asked about the episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that features Demarre and Anthony, ages 18 and 14, demonstrating their instruments and rehearsing for a performance. “Oh my goodness, you watched that?” He laughed. “That was awesome, if a bit surreal in hindsight. He was just such an unusually gentle guy, Mister Rogers. I mean, you see that of course when he’s on the show, but he was just like that. I haven’t met anyone like that since.”

Last December, Demarre, Anthony, and pianist Michael McHale recorded an album that the flutist said was fun to make. “We’re really proud of that CD, and we’ll have a release party in New York sometime in September.” In 2012, the brothers performed the world premiere of Joel Puckett’s Concerto Duo for Flute and Clarinet with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, where they began their careers.

The flutist described the experience of playing with his brother as very intuitive. “With pieces like the Shostakovich Four Waltzes, which has room for rubato all over the place, we don’t really have to discuss it. We don’t have to say to each other, ‘How about we take some time here?’ So it can really be different every single time, and it works out. It’s something that’s easy to take for granted because we’re used to it, but it’s a real pleasure.

“It’s a level of communication that maybe comes from just growing up in the same room. I’m four years older, which is a big difference when you’re young, so he was hearing me play for some years before he started. I’m not taking any credit for his success,” Demarre said, laughing. “But he has a sense of my concept of sound from when we were kids and I was actually developing that concept.”



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