Music : Pianist Finds Her Own Rhythm


Anne-Marie McDermott started taking lessons when she was 5, which is pretty common for would-be pianists. She stopped them when she was 18, which isn’t.

“I had wonderful teachers and intense training, but I made the decision that I needed to figure out on my own what everyone had taught me,” the 31-year-old pianist said from her apartment in New York City.

“Also, I was partially being rebellious at all that authority around me and needed to assert myself. I have not regretted it. Both with piano and with my life, the learning I’ve continued to do is a lot more genuine.”

Indeed, the decision to wing it hasn’t impaired her career. McDermott found professional representation the same year she stopped lessons for good. She soon began winning a number of important prizes and eventually came to greater prominence, as do so many other young artists, by substituting for ailing colleagues on short notice.


Particularly big breaks occurred when she substituted for Murray Perahia in the Mozart D-minor Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony in 1992 and when she stepped in for Maria Joao Pires with the Dallas Symphony in Beethoven’s Second Concerto in 1993.

She will be soloist with the Pacific Symphony led by Klaus Donath on Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in another Mozart Concerto--No. 21, popularly called the “Elvira Madigan” Concerto, after its use in the 1967 Swedish film.

It is a nickname, however, McDermott detests.

“I suppose it’s inevitable, but it generally irritates me so much. It’s really a great piece of music all on its own. It’s incredibly uplifting, without having to relate it to any movie or any scenario.”


In fact, McDermott finds its popularity--she has been called upon to play that work more often than any other Mozart concerto--frustrating.

“There are so many Mozart concertos that are so great, I hate to see any of them overlooked because of a movie.”

Still, she’ll do her duty.

“I adore playing all Mozart. I fall in love with whichever (concerto) I’m working on at the time.”


Born in Flushing, N.Y., McDermott grew up with two older sisters who are also musicians (“probably we were a little bit competitive as to who would practice longer”) and a younger brother, who is an artist. Maureen, the eldest, is a free-lance cellist; Kerry, the next in line, plays in the first violin section of the New York Philharmonic.

Their Irish parents wanted them to have everything.

“We had Irish step-dancing lessons, swimming lessons, diving lessons. I studied the guitar as well as the piano. Diving was my second favorite thing after the piano. But I got an infection in my inner ear when I was about 9, so I stopped doing that.”

The same year McDermott stopped taking lessons, she met her future husband, Jeffrey Caswell, now a free-lance trombonist. They have divided their apartment in two so each can practice without “driving the other crazy.”


“Since I met him, I’ve been traveling a lot. Essentially, we don’t see each other for months. It is difficult. (But) I think the core of our friendship is so great, nothing could draw us apart. We talk on the phone constantly. It is difficult. But this is my priority in my life, and we both know it. I just am lucky to have somebody in my life who understands that.”

McDermott approaches all music--and Mozart especially--by not trying to impose herself on it too much.

“That’s sort of in our nature as musicians,” she says, “to want to shape lines and do a lot with them. The challenge with Mozart is doing very little. Of course, when you practice, you try out every option. But when you perform it, you separate yourself out.”

What she likes to emphasize in Mozart is the music’s “great strength of rhythm and humor.”


Some pianists take a more lyrical, introverted approach. McDermott feels stronger about the music.

“Maybe I’m a little more extroverted. Still, I view all the concertos as chamber music, where the music-making is highly interactive. I like that to be as evident as it can it.

“As far as tempos are concerned, I’m not a purist,” she continued. “I don’t try to do exactly the tempos marked by a composer (even) when they are marked. I have to find my own rhythm, my own contribution to tempo and dynamics. Certainly I try to abide by what the composer wrote, but not to an extreme. Everybody is different, psychologically. You have to find it for yourself first. That’s the only way to do it with conviction.”

McDermott also makes no apologies for playing Mozart on a concert grand, as she will Saturday.


“I’ve always felt very strongly that we shouldn’t have any preconceptions about Mozart and Bach being performed on modern-day instruments,” she says. “The music speaks for itself and should be accessible to as large a group as possible. A modern grand makes it more accessible. If I played on a fortepiano, it would have to be in a smaller setting to be effective.”

Conductor Donath doesn’t object to the modern instrument either.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said from Bristol, England, after conducting the second of three performances of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” “The orchestra will be large enough.”

Still, he will keep the orchestra to about 40 players.


“Mozart has to be interpreted light and friendly and not heavy and not with too big an orchestra, because Mozart did not know anything about Brahms, Strauss, Wagner and Bruckner. You have to hear that Mozart comes from Haydn; Beethoven comes later. The orchestra shouldn’t sound like a Romantic orchestra. If it sounds like Brahms, it’s completely wrong.”

* Anne-Marie McDermott will be the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with the Pacific Symphony led by Klaus Donath on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Meadows Drive, Irvine. Donath also will conduct the Divertimento, K. 138, and the Symphonies No. 32 and 38 (“Prague”). $12 to $48. (714) 740-2000 (TicketMaster).