Dallas — The concerts presented by Blue Candlelight are an elegant evening of music chamber presented in a beautiful home. A buffet of delicious finger foods and some respectable wines add to the experience. On Jan. 4, Enika and Richard Schulze welcomed us to their stunning and acoustically resplendent home to hear a trio made up of flute, violin and piano. We heard two premieres and works by two prominent women composers: Victoria Bond, who's of our era, and Clara Schumann, a name from the past.
However, the interest of the evening was the first opportunity for many of us to hear the new principal flutist of the Dallas Symphony—Demarre McGill. He has already proven that he deserves to sit in that chair, most noticeably in the famous flute solo passages in the suite from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé. In this concert, we could see and hear him up close.
The person who sits in the principal flute chair has a big impact on the sound of the orchestra. His sound is darker and more burnished than the brighter and more silvery sound of the exceptional flutist, Jean Garver, who held the seat for decades until her recent retirement. This is admittedly a subtle change, and Garver darkened her sound whenever the music required, but the sound of the wind band, and thus the orchestra itself, has changed.
We expected McGill to be a fine flutist, but he exceeded every expectation. His superb musicianship was a given from his DSO solo passages, but it was his mastery in all aspects of flute playing that impressed.
His sound is consistent throughout all of the registers. His intonation is perfect with each note in dead center or leaning in the exactly correct direction as dictated by its function in the harmony. You hardly ever hear him take a breath, many flutists gasp, and he is able to play such long phrases that you wonder if he circle breaths on a regular basis.
The Blue Candlelight concert opened and closed with a piano trio—the first by Bohuslav Martinu and the program closer was a trio by Nino Rota (best known for his film scores for Fellini and Zeffirelli, among others). DSO Senior Associate Concertmaster Gary Levinson was the violinist and the pianist was Steven Harlos, a composer, pianist, and professor of piano at the University of North Texas.
Harlos was also represented as a composer. We heard a world premiere of his Sonata for Violin and Piano and the local premiere of a sonata for flute and piano. Both works were quite attractive and obviously very difficult to play. Harlos was impressive as a collaborative pianist for the entire program but he brought a composer’s insight to the piano parts of his two sonatas. Many composers are not the best choice to play their own music. It frequently requires the distance that another musician can bring. Not so in this case. Harlos’ piano style and his compositional style are so closely aligned that it felt like he was improvising the piano part on the spot.
While Harlos’ music has its own unique voice, on a purely technical level these sonatas are as skillfully constructed as the works of professor/composers such as Walter Piston. Harlos’ style is a stew of such a wide array of musical influences that none of them stand out. While he makes them his own, his harmonies and rhythms come from jazz. This is not a surprise because he is also an active jazz pianist. In this respect, the music of Claude Bolling comes to mind (although the sound is completely different).
Victoria Bond is a prominent conductor and composer who lives in New York City. She never met a barrier that she didn’t break. On this concert, we heard her Samba for Flute and Piano. Like all of her music, it is impressively put together, accessible and effective. McGill and Harlos gave it a spirited performance and Bond’s piece was one of the selections that created most the buzz at intermission.
We all know about Cara Schumann as the wife of the brilliant but tortured Robert Schumann. We also know that, as Clara Wieck, she was one of the best concert pianists of her generation. We may know that she was also a fine composer. But her music is rarely performed. Levinson and Harlos played two of her romances for violin. Both are absolutely gorgeous in high romantic mode.
Levinson’s sound was perfectly suited to Schumann’s soaring melodies. Of course, playing on a Stradivarius helps, but you can tell that Levinson could get a wondrous sound out of a less distinguished instrument.
Nino Rota’s Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano, dating from 1958, was saved for last. While his movie score background poked through every now and then, the overall impression is that Rota was an outstanding composer with a sure command of his materials.
Demarre McGill was named Principal Flutist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in September 2013. Before that, the young flutist won the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant and he has played concerti with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, Seattle Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Baltimore Symphony and Milwaukee Symphony, among others.
When you attend a DSO concert these days, the most noticeable thing about McGill, other than his astonishing playing, is that he is an African-American and sits dead center. Another McGill, his younger brother, Anthony, is the principal clarinetist in the New York Philharmonic. This is important to note because only four percent of orchestral players in America are black or Latino.
According to a story on McGill that ran on WGN TV in Chicago, the McGill brothers grew up on Chicago’s Southside and while money was tight, their parents dedicated themselves to education for their prodigious children, eventually sending them to Interlochen Arts Academy.
The results speak for themselves. Demarre McGill is one of the finest musicians in the country, and we have him here. Hearing him perform the occasional concert outside of the Dallas Symphony is a bonus for us all.