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Pianist plays in key of passion

For Anne-Marie McDermott, Prokofiev sonatas make a stirring obsession

Portland audiences will get an unusual opportunity next week to hear all nine of Sergei Prokofiev's piano sonatas at Reed College, performed by celebrated New York pianist Anne-Marie McDermott.

The series is part of Chamber Music Northwest's focus on 20th- century Russian composers. McDermott will play the sonatas in groups of three March 17, 19 and 21, but they won't be presented in chronological order.

McDermott, 39, first came to Portland when another pianist canceled a performance several years ago, she said by phone from her home in New York. She keeps returning because she loves audiences here.

'Portland audiences are like family, but they're serious about the music,' McDermott says. 'Nobody's here because of status. I get strong camaraderie between the audience and myself, and it's a welcome environment.'

McDermott's career has been spectacular since she first appeared at New York's Carnegie Hall at age 12, performing Mendelssohn's Concert in G minor. Her professional debut was with the New York Philharmonic in 1997, playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9.

Since then she has been busy as a solo recitalist, soloist with orchestra or player in a chamber music ensemble. She has performed with a dozen major U.S. orchestras, toured with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and also plays with violinist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg.

'A huge emotional palette'

McDermott was intrigued to learn that 2003 is the 50th anniversary of Prokofiev's death, an event that went unreported for a week. She knew Prokofiev's sixth sonata already, learning it after hearing Igor Pogorelich play it. But she resolved to learn the others, and this program came into being.

'It's a huge undertaking, I've been at work on the repertoire for two and a half years,' she says enthusiastically. 'It's the most difficult thing I've ever done and the most exciting. I feel very passionate about it; and if you're going to work this hard, there'd better be passion about it!'

McDermott thinks that the sonatas embrace the range of Prokofiev's emotions:

'It's such a huge emotional palette. I feel he's vastly underrated. Most people know the seventh sonata, but I think they're all masterpieces. I hope I can communicate that in live performances.'

McDermott has recorded all nine sonatas and plans to be editing the tapes while she's here, hoping to complete the work by June. She says she's always felt in tune with Prokofiev's work, perhaps because he was a pianist who stretched his boundaries.

'I always found his writing comes naturally to me,' she says. 'But he pushed the limits way beyond any composer previously or since. He has markings like quadruple forte with mark altissimo and accents on every note, and he demands that you use the piano as not only a melodic but also percussive instrument. He sometimes demands ugly sounds, and I love that.'

The clarity of Prokofiev's contrapuntal writing and his rhythmic energy also remind her of her other favorite composer, J.S. Bach.

'Every note matters; it's not just the melody,' she says.

Life amid turbulent times

Prokofiev was born in Russia in 1891. He composed his first four sonatas between 1909 and 1917, then left the country for the United States and Paris.

His fifth sonata was composed in Paris in 1923 but revised 30 years later. Returning to Russia in 1936, he composed the sixth, seventh and eighth during World War II and the last in 1951.

When asked her favorite McDermott begins by saying she loves them all. Then she decides:

'I think the most potent, the most impactful is the eighth. It has the most massive emotional scope. Whenever I finish that one, I can't get up and say, 'Let's go get a drink.' É It gets you viscerally from beginning to end, and it doesn't let go. It's an incredible journey.

McDermott says she understands Prokofiev the man after grappling with all the sonatas Ñ and thinks he was misunderstood. She'll discuss the programs informally from the stage at 7 p.m. before each concert.

'There's a lot of talk about how he was obnoxious,' she says, 'but I read every biography I could get my hands on, and he lived a sheltered life, loved chess, and he loved children. He wrote 'Peter and the Wolf'!'

McDermott will play the original piano version of 'Peter and the Wolf' at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 16, at Moe's Piano Recital Hall, 131 N.W. 13th Ave. Admission is $5.