Turning Air into Sculpture
New Principal Flute Demarre McGill Makes You Crane Your Neck at Seattle Symphony
You're looking down at your program. Maybe the music is wearing on, maybe you've lost its line for a moment. It happens, even when the players are very good: You just get shifty. Suddenly, there comes a voice that requires seeing. For this fragile sound, climbing out of the army of the orchestra, you're craning your neck. You need to identify that voice before it's gone, disappearing again back into the orchestra. It's not skill alone you're hearing; most everybody in an advanced symphony orchestra can impress an audience. What you're hearing now is something else, and it's hard to describe.
I ask Seattle Symphony principal piccolo Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby, who's played in the orchestra since 1982 and whom everybody calls Zart, to try to describe the neck-crane-inducing sounds that Demarre McGill makes as the orchestra's new principal flute. "He's technically incredible, but that wouldn't be enough." She pauses. "He has a certain sparkle. A certain charisma. He expresses the music in a way that you know what he's trying to say," she finally decides. He gives wordless sounds a certain certainty.
McGill's playing is round and whole, or at least that's an insufficient way to sum it up. There's nothing flat or flinty or stereotypically pan-flutey about it. It's only air he's working with, but he's turning that air into sculpture. The word "energy" comes up repeatedly when people talk about McGill. His playing is rehearsed, of course, but it renders mysteriously, especially live.
McGill, a 36-year-old brimming with bona fides (graduated from Curtis Institute of Music and from Juilliard, won national flute competitions as a kid, has held two other principal positions, in Tampa and San Diego), was the first new principal player hired last spring by Seattle Symphony's vivacious incoming French music director, Ludovic Morlot. Morlot's arrival happened to coincide with the retirement of McGill's predecessor, Scott Goff, who spent an incredible 42 years in the principal flute seat. (The orchestra is changing profoundly—a search is under way for a concertmaster, the violinist who sits directly to the left of the conductor's podium and is arguably the single most important position in the band besides the conductor himself.) Like Morlot and the Turkish-born principal cello Efe Baltacigil (another Curtis grad hired by Morlot last year), McGill is still a little bit of an unknown.
He is a member of a remarkable family. His mother, Ida Carol McGill, is a charismatic actress and singer in Chicago, where her husband, Demarre Sr., is a retired deputy commissioner of the fire department. Demarre McGill's three-years-younger brother, Anthony, is principal clarinet at the hailed Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York and "one of the best clarinetists in the world, as far as I'm concerned," McGill says. Anthony performed a new work by film composer John Williams at President Barack Obama's inauguration. (Come on, Barack: Not both brothers?)
Demarre McGill's first name is pronounced "de-MAR-ay," and on the day I meet him near Benaroya Hall, he is dressed like a prep-school success with the slightest extra flash. He's an easy talker, polite, focused, and with a smile, like his mother's, that spreads the width of his face. "They almost named me Demarrio! Then I'd have had to be an R&B singer," he says, laughing. "I'd have made it work." He's interested in classical music as music, not as "the finest music," he says, and tells me that his regimen for auditions includes choosing an anthem he plays before and after tryouts. For Seattle, it was Lupe Fiasco's "The Show Goes On." "So thanks, Lupe—who's from Chicago, by the way," he says.
He first found the flute in his parents' closet, just sitting in there as he rooted around for fallen pocket change or was hiding out or something; he can't recall. His parents had wanted him to take music lessons—along with tae kwon do and whatever else—and they couldn't afford a piano (both were public school art teachers at the time). Before the kids were born, Demarre Sr. and Ida Carol would jam in their apartment on the south side of Chicago, him playing a wooden flute, her singing.
"I can picture them with their dashikis and their Afros," he says. "I mean, they were partyers. Anyway, I found the flute in their closet. There it was. I remember taking the flute down to my father—he was in the kitchen—and asking him what do you do with this. He just put it together and said, 'Blow like you're blowing into a Coke bottle,' and that was that. It really is random that my brother and I are doing this."
Classical music both is and isn't his home culture. At his last job, in San Diego, he started a chamber music group that's "just stuff I would want to listen to, knowing I sometimes get bored at classical music concerts," Demarre McGill says. There are the extras of classical music—the fancy dress, the stiffness, an academic air that can hang over things—and the fact that it's a European, not even American, let alone African American, tradition.
"If I feel like I need to reel it in, go back to my roots, whatever that means, I try to get to the barbershop every week because it's my opportunity to be with black people," he says. He likes a place in the University District. "It's a really important part of my week."
But McGill has deep roots in classical flute, of course. It's just one of those things—he was born to play it. "I used to hold onto it," he says, holding the flute vertically next to his body like another limb, "hoping that if I held onto it long enough, it would become a part of me."
McGill will feature prominently in a pair of baroque concerts built around Bach at Benaroya this week. The music calls for fewer players, so there's no getting up and standing in front of the army like a superstar; he'll still be part of a group, just a smaller group, meaning a greater chance to hear him. His "innate" diplomacy in leading and collaborating with other musicians was the final distinguishing factor that led Morlot to hire McGill. There were 300 applicants, 50 of whom played live, for the spot.
"This is almost a gift, this communication ability and desire," Morlot says. "There are a lot of musicians who have a hard time collaborating in small groups, and for me, I don't want players who feel uncomfortable with actually addressing the issues." McGill, for his part, said Morlot's arrival "wasn't my concern" early in the auditions, but now has become a giant bonus of the job. "I'm a big fan," McGill says. "He knows exactly what he wants, and he knows how to get it out." They speak about each other in similar terms.
Up in a back room at Benaroya, overlooking Second Avenue, McGill is nerding out on the way the movements in Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 build to the fast-paced finale. The flute part is vindictively cheerful in tone, given how difficult it is. He has just had dental surgery, and this is the first time he's reunited with his instrument in several days. He points to another section of the score, a minuet. "In an ideal world, this will sound like a not-so- innocent minuet, even though it's just a minuet. It will be a minuet where you have the sense that something's about to happen... that..." He fades off into the score and picks up the flute to demonstrate his points. Soon, he's done talking and he's just playing.