McGill Brothers Enchant Athenaeum Audience in Unconventional Flute, Clarinet, and Piano Recital

by Madonna

A remarkable collaboration unfolded on a Sunday evening at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, as two distinguished wind instrumentalists graced the stage to inaugurate the Chamber Concert Series. Flutist Demarre McGill, renowned in San Diego as the former principal flutist of the San Diego Symphony, a member of the Myriad Trio, and co-founder of Art of Elan, joined forces with his brother, the accomplished clarinetist Anthony McGill, who has made multiple appearances for Mainly Mozart and the La Jolla Music Society.

Adding to the ensemble’s brilliance was the talented Belfast-born and London-based pianist, Michael McHale, whose keyboard virtuosity left an indelible impression.

The repertoire for flute, clarinet, and piano trios is relatively limited, with most compositions dating back to the last 50 years. The McGill/McHale Trio selected three pieces from their 2017 album, “Portraits.”

Among these selections, Guillaume Connesson’s “Techno-Parade” stood out as the most captivating. Despite drawing inspiration from techno music, it featured minimal repetition, defying the genre’s norms. “Techno-Parade” possessed an unrelenting momentum throughout its 4.5-minute duration, resembling an infernal machine with ever-shifting meters and jagged melodies, all expertly delivered by the three musicians with infectious enthusiasm.

Anthony McGill commissioned Chris Rogerson to arrange the first movement of his piano trio, “River Songs,” for the McGill/McHale Trio. “A Fish Will Rise” evoked the harmonies of Copland’s populist middle period, conjuring images of trout darting through fast streams and peacefully gliding in calm waters. While pleasant on the surface and skillfully adapted for the instruments, this listener remained unconvinced.

Valerie Coleman’s “Portraits of Langston” was masterfully composed for flute and clarinet, a feat not surprising given her background as a flutist and founding member of the Imani Winds. Its six movements serve as tone poems inspired by Langston Hughes’ poetry and prose, though the spoken word segments from the “Portraits” CD were omitted during the live performance. Coleman’s music elegantly captured Hughes’ finesse but fell short of encapsulating his gritty essence. Without program notes, it would be challenging to discern that “Le Grand Duc Mambo” depicted a nightclub brawl or that the fifth movement portrayed a “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret.”

The concert proceeded without an intermission, with Michael McHale offering two solo performances to provide the McGills with a brief respite. Augusta Holmès’ “Évocation d’amour,” originally a 7/8 time song, received a Lisztian arrangement from McHale, expertly emphasizing the melody amid intricate right and left-hand embellishments.

The evening’s other compositional surprise came in the form of Missy Mazzoli’s “Heartbreaker,” originally composed as a competition piece for the American Pianists Association. The piece presented interpretive challenges rather than sheer virtuosity, utilizing tonal harmonies in asymmetrical phrases, pushing forward and holding back in a language distinct from Rogerson and Coleman, owing little to previous models or styles. McHale’s performance of “Heartbreaker” was truly captivating.

The concert’s centerpiece featured Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano and his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. In the Flute Sonata, Demarre McGill showcased his resplendent sonority, especially in his upper register. McHale’s cantabile playing was luxuriously smooth.

Anthony McGill’s performance in the Clarinet Sonata revealed eerily beautiful arpeggios teetering on the edge of audibility. His consistent tone remained admirable throughout the evening.

As a heartwarming encore, the Trio presented McHale’s delightful arrangement of the traditional Irish tune, “The Lark in the Clear Air,” delivering a beautiful rendition that resonated with all three performers.

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