Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Demarre McGill could be a rebellious teenager. But he was not your average rebellious teenager.
“I used to have a saying, when I was 14 or 15 – I was obsessed with music and obsessed with the flute and with achieving and attaining all of my goals. I felt so connected to Mozart as a teenager that if I got into an argument with my parents, I would tell them, ‘You NEVER take my Mozart away!’ ” He laughed, remembering. “Whatever state I needed to be in to perform Mozart, I needed that state. I didn’t want anything to happen to that.”
Luckily his parents never did take Mozart away. McGill went on to become the principal flutist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. His younger brother, as a boy, was inspired by hearing him practicing, and is now the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic.
Their father, a Chicago firefighter originally from Mississippi, has written a book called “A Father’s Triumphant Story: Raising Successful African-American Men In These Troubled Times.” He promises that the book reveals 25 secrets for success. Presumably one of them is Mozart.
McGill will be giving back to the great master at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, when he joins the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and harp virtuoso Yolanda Kondonassis, in Mozart’s Concerto in C For Flute and Harp. It’s an all-Mozart concert, in honor of the composer’s birthday (which is actually Tuesday). Conducted by David Alan Miller, the program begins with the airy Divertimento in D, K. 136, and ends with the tender, joyous “Prague” Symphony. The concerto is its centerpiece.
It has become traditional to kick off the BPO’s spring season by celebrating Mozart’s birthday. It’s also a reminder that classical music belongs to the young.
Mozart was 35 when he died, and just 22 when he wrote his flute and harp concerto. It was commissioned by a duke he met in Paris. The duke played flute and the duke’s daughter played harp. The story goes that Mozart never got paid for the piece. But today it is a masterpiece everyone loves.
Kondonassis, the harpist, was reminded of that once in a memorable way. After recording the piece in England with the London Symphony, she treated herself to a massage to soothe herself after the physical and emotional exertion.
“I was lying on the table, and just as I was starting to unclench my fists, what comes on the sound system but the Mozart flute and harp concerto,” she laughed on the phone. “In the spa!”
Opportunities to hear the flute and harp concerto live do not arise every day. The BPO’s Classics series featured the piece only once before, in 1988.
Kondonassis is in awe of the music.
“Mozart was just the definition of brilliance. There was a gift there that we may never see again,” she reflected. “He wasn’t a rich man. By all accounts, personally, he did not have his life together. But God, the volume of just transcendent brilliance that he brought to the world. It’s mind-boggling.”
Kondonassis, who grew up in Oklahoma, is known for playing music from all over the map. Her brand-new CD, “Together,” has her performing modern music with guitarist Jason Vieaux, a native of Depew. But the Mozart concerto is a longtime love.
“Mozart was rather infatuated with one of his very young students,” she says. “Back in that day a music teacher would teach everything. You wouldn’t go to a piano teacher to learn piano and a harp teacher to learn harp. She played the harp, and he’d work with her. And he was inspired by her, I believe. The duke’s daughter was a very prodigious young harpist. Mozart wrote this piece with her in mind. It’s a very romantic piece. The second movement is like a love letter.”
Mozart never got paid for the duke’s commission, and Kondonassis has a theory why that was. “Probably like most fathers of teenage girls, when he got wind of the slightly more-than-casual interest in his daughter,” she laughs.
The music suggests how accomplished the duke’s daughter must have been on the harp.
“It’s one of the more difficult concertos for the harp,” Kondonassis says. “It’s quite technical. I adore it, it’s fun. And I always tell my own students, the secret to not being paralyzed by the difficulty of anything you play is to allow yourself to be completely entertained. It’s like any other challenging mental or physical path. The secret to playing this well is to be in the task, not to think ‘This is very technical. Oh, my goodness, I have a little cold. I don’t think I can play these 100 notes in 20 seconds.’ ” She laughs.
Mozart made dazzling use of the harp’s strengths, writing showers of notes. Kondonassis’ husband, Michael Sachs, is the principal trumpet player of the Cleveland Orchestra, and they get a kick out of comparing scores.
“He looks at a page of my music, and a page of his, and says, thank God I’m not paid by the note. A typical page of the Mozart concerto has hundreds of notes. It’s a wonderful kind of carpet of notes. It’s just fun to play. That’s where you need to put your focus, on the fun. To hear the physical and musical joy.”
The flute in the closet
Kondonassis is sure that the joy of the concerto is enough to enchant anyone.
“If you’re not someone who listens to classical music on a regular basis, this is a great place to start,” she said. “You don’t have to do any work to listen to it. You can be really sit back and let the music do the talking. A lot of people think you have to think hard to appreciate classical music, that to be worth listening to, it has to be this big intellectual experience. The great thing is, you can listen to it the same as you listen to any other kind of music. Let it wash over you and take your mind where it wants it to go. This piece will take your mind to great places.”
The music has taken McGill to great places.
He was a boy when he encountered the flute. “Before I was born, when my parents were dating, they would have parties, jam sessions,” he explained. “My father would play a wooden African flute. At one point my mother bought him a used silver-plated flute. He toyed with it a little bit. It was collecting dust in the closet. I found it when I was 6 or 7. I said, ‘What is this, and what do I do with it?’ He said, ‘Blow across it as you blow across a Coke bottle.’
“By the time I was 14, I gave it my all.”
Now, playing the Mozart concerto reminds him of the joy he takes in his art. “I absolutely love playing in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and I love that I can play the Mozart flute and harp concerto,” he said.
Like Kondonassis, McGill has spent years with the piece.
“There’s an intimacy that’s formed year after year,” he said. “I’m still constantly growing. There is a sense that this feels better than it did the last time I played it. I appreciate this level of comfort that didn’t exist when I last played it, the previous June. It feels better. I feel I’m able to do more with it.
“The line between being myself and being Mozart – being the music – it becomes more and more blurred.”