Seattle Symphony’s new principal flutist, Demarre McGill talks about taking his career to new phases in a new town.

October 6, 2011

Seattle Symphony’s new principal flutist, Demarre McGill, and new principal cellist, Efe Baltacigil, talk about taking their careers to new phases in a new town.

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

There’s more than one newcomer on the Benaroya Hall stage this season.

The arrival of French conductor Ludovic Morlot to head Seattle Symphony is the biggest news, of course. But the principal chairs for flute and cello have also recently been filled, by Demarre McGill and Efe Baltacigil, respectively.

Both seem raring to go. At the first Masterworks concert of the season, they were among the first onstage, diligently practicing runs before the concert started. And they both had their spotlight moments, especially in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3.

Last month, McGill and Baltacigil shared their thoughts about their musical tastes and their new musical home.

Demarre McGill

Demarre (de-MARR-ay) McGill, the former principal flutist with the San Diego Symphony, replaces Scott Goff, who has retired after 42 years with Seattle Symphony. It’s clear McGill, 36, has been a vital presence on the San Diego music scene, co-founding a vibrant chamber series, Art of Élan, which he’ll continue to codirect.

Still, he couldn’t be more excited about joining the Seattle Symphony at a time of new leadership and new direction.

At his audition, he says, he “definitely felt the energy of the orchestra. … And as I investigated further, there were two things that just blew me away, really impressed me: Morlot’s programming … and how welcoming the musicians have been.”

The warm welcome, he says, has come from members of Seattle’s flute community as well as symphony players.

What does McGill hope to bring to the orchestra?

“I think that like the other principal instruments, the principal flute is an important voice of the ensemble. So I like to say just ‘playing pretty’ is an important part of my job description. But not just that,” he stresses. “It may be about me if I have a solo. Otherwise it’s really about creating a glorious unified wind sound.”

McGill says it has been fascinating to play works he hasn’t performed before. “It doesn’t happen all the time. After you’ve played a number of years in orchestras, you’ll find the same old friends in the repertoire.”

With works by Dutilleux, Varèse, Zappa and Gulda on Morlot’s playlist, McGill has been feeling he’s a student again: “It’s a really nice feeling … studying the recordings and learning the stuff from scratch. That’s very exciting.”

McGill began playing the flute in Chicago when he was 7 years old, starting with a used silver flute his mother gave his father before Demarre was born.

“I loved it immediately,” he says of the flute. “My father just said, ‘Blow across it like you blow across a Coke bottle.’ And that was my first lesson, I guess.”

A flute teacher, conveniently, happened to live around the corner.

“For seven years after that,” he remembers, “I would have these moments of passion. … I couldn’t stop practicing, and then I would just plateau. Then I would have another moment of musical ecstasy, with just a little short piece.”

McGill, for whom the word “upbeat” might have been coined, listens to “absolutely everything” — blues, R&B, hip-hop, jazz, folk music, world music — and a recent comment by Morlot about there being “only good music and not-so-good music” made a special impression on him.

“I read that and thought: This guy is going to be fantastic for the city, because he has the right perspective.”

Regarding the future of the symphony orchestra in a frenzied media culture, McGill is an optimist: “I definitely am not preaching this little doomsday thing at all. I don’t believe that with orchestras.”

He cites the richness of the classical repertoire itself — “The music has been around this long for a reason” — but some of his optimism comes from his experience with Art of Élan in San Diego, where he and his fellow musicians worked inventively to connect with the public.

“Once that connection is made,” he says, “good things will happen. I think that, from what I can see and from what I’ve read, the Seattle Symphony is on the right track.”