Meet Anne-Marie McDermott, Bravo! Vail’s artistic director
July 24, 2015
Editor's note: This story first ran in Vail Lifestyle Magazine, on stands now.
When, at age 5, Anne-Marie McDermott attended her first concert, she was absolutely mesmerized. She remembers it well. "I don't recall the piece of music, but I remember going to a concert with a full orchestra and a piano soloist and seeing the big black shiny piano with a spotlight on it," McDermott said. "When the soloist walked out on stage and the applause began, I just thought it was the most glamorous and powerful thing I had ever seen. It really stuck with me. It put this spirit of a great challenge in me where I just wanted to do that.
"And, obviously, over the years, when you realize what having a career in music entails, it's not glamorous. It's hard work. It's great work, but it's very hard work."
Yes. McDermott, artistic director of Bravo! Vail, as well as the Ocean Reef Chamber Music Festival, The Avila Chamber Music Celebration in Curacao and the Spotlight Chamber Music Series in San Diego, knows all too well the dedication and work it takes to become a world-renowned concert pianist.
Let's just say, McDermott took the road less traveled.
'Let it all pour out'
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At age 5, McDermott began taking music lessons — piano and guitar — along with her two older sisters, Maureen, who began with piano but then switched to the cello, and Kerry (a violinist with the New York Philharmonic) who played the violin as well as the mandolin. They even formed The McDermott Trio.
"Growing up, we were always playing chamber music," McDermott said, in her rapid-fire manner. "I also began playing 'one piano-four hands' with Maureen, so that was great. Having siblings loving what they were doing as much as I loved what I was doing was a great motivator."
McDermott's parents soon realized how serious the girls were about their music and decided that they should be home-schooled, at a time when it was less common. So McDermott and Kerry (Maureen was a couple of years older) attended a private school for two hours, then were tutored by their mother and, after school, practiced four to five hours a day.
"I have to admit, I really didn't immerse myself in the educational side," said McDermott reflectively. "And after my mother died [from breast cancer] when I was 15, I barely continued to go to school and I lost interest in music for a period of time. It took a little bit of time to find my love of music again. I lost it for a while. My sisters were much more pulled together than I."
As it happened, she played in a master class for John Browning, a pianist known for his reserved, elegant style and sophisticated interpretations, who had ended his career in his 40s. McDermott got the courage to ask if she could play for him sometime. And he agreed.
"We really hit it off, " McDermott revealed. "He didn't charge me and I would play for him and it changed me. I grew up Irish Catholic — so very disciplined, so very structured. John was a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker. Well, musicians just have to open the floodgates and let it all pour out. And at the lessons, I'd be blushing. I had never heard the language that he used. It was absolutely wonderful. He pushed me so hard. I think he liked my feisty spirit and I adored him."
'RISE TO THE OCCASION'
McDermott's sister went off to college and she and her brother, Patrick, were home with their dad. Curiously, McDermott announced that she wanted to play jazz piano and began studying with a jazz teacher. And, then, moved in with her jazz teacher!
"I was about 16 and that did not, obviously, go over well. I don't know how my dad survived this period," McDermott said. "I was very rebellious and just did not really love playing anymore."
After McDermott went through her "jazz phase," as she calls it, she began accompanying "everybody on the planet" for their competitions.
Then, while accompanying a performer at an organization called Young Concert Artists, McDermott, at 17, attracted the attention of Susan Wadsworth, the group's founder, who suggested the she audition solo. McDermott waited a year before deciding to do so. And when she did, she won every award at the competition. When you become a member of Young Concert Artists, the organization becomes your manager and mentor. The first year, after winning the competition, McDermott played 30 concerts.
At the same time, she began attending the college division of the Manhattan School of Music.
"I got thrown out, after six months, because I did nothing. I showed up for nothing," McDermott said. "I was completely immature. I really hadn't grown up. But, the Young Concert Artists really put me on track and once I was on that track, I realized how much I loved doing what I was doing. I just became obsessed and I've never stopped. It was a rough start, for sure. I believe, somehow, my mom was looking out for me. It really could have gone any way during that period of time."
'YOU HAVE TO BE THAT OBSESSED'
At 27, McDermott married a trombone player, but in her mid-30s, after a "horrendous five-year divorce," was single again.
"I was 34, got an apartment, as I had money at that point — and rebuilt. But, for months, I felt like there was no ground under me," she said. "I remember night after night, hysterically crying while listening to Schubert. That's what I do at the worst times as well as the best times of my life."
And the best time of her life came two years later, when she met the love of her life, Michael Lubin, a senior consultant to a high-tech company. He's a romantic who would send a dozen roses to each of her hotel rooms. Or have her paged at an airport with the message, "Mikey loves Annie."
"He's a huge romantic," McDermott said. "He worships music and piano playing and he's given me wings."
These days, she no longer considers herself a "young artist," as she was called for much of her career, and instead looks back on her career with gratitude.
"And, the older I get, the more humbling I find it to be because of that fact that I've been so blessed with having a career for these many years," she said. "To me, the longevity of a career is what defines it. Not that you can have a great career for five years, but that you can keep reinventing yourself — and you have to."