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Transformations In ‘Notre Dame’ And Debussy With SDMA+ And Art Of Elan

Flutist Demarre McGill will perform Debussy's "Syrinx" as part of an SDMA+ Art of Elan virtual performance collaboration, inspired by Maximilien Luce's "Notre Dame" painting, available to stream on June 23, 2020.
San Diego Museum of Art
Flutist Demarre McGill will perform Debussy's "Syrinx" as part of an SDMA+ Art of Elan virtual performance collaboration, inspired by Maximilien Luce's "Notre Dame" painting, available to stream on June 23, 2020.
Demarre McGill finds renewed purpose in lifting up emerging black musicians amidst an uprising, and finds his own stories in hundred-year-old works of art and music.

Flutist Demarre McGill cofounded local music nonprofit Art of Elan with Kate Hatmaker nearly 15 years ago. McGill has since moved away — the former San Diego Symphony musician is now principal flute for the Seattle Symphony — but he'll return this month, virtually, to perform with the SDMA+ series.

SDMA+ is the San Diego Museum of Art's collaborative, cross-genre project. It pairs local music and performance organizations with the museum's art, often linking performances to special exhibitions or specific works of art. Organizations including Art of Elan, Black Xpression, the San Diego Ballet, the San Diego Shakespeare Society and San Diego Youth Symphony will collaborate with SDMA+ virtual platforms this summer.

Here's how it works: Performing arts organizations are tasked with interpreting works from the museum's vast collections or a current temporary exhibition. Often, performances take place literally in front of the work in question, but sometimes make use of the museum's grand rotunda — ballet dancers twirl their interpretations of William-Adolphe Bouguereau beneath the second floor balcony or a youth cellist rings out a Saint-Saëns solo in front of an Alessandro Magnasco painting.


Like most other art events during quarantine, the project has found a new home online. And this summer, Art of Elan asked a handful of instrumental musicians to pick a work from the museum's permanent collection, pair it with a composition of their choice, and record a video. This video concert series will launch a new performance every other Tuesday on the museum's YouTube channel.

McGill selected Maximilien Luce's "Notre Dame," a neo-impressionist painting depicting the Paris cathedral. Luce's dab-style brush strokes and abundant use of grays washes the busy scene with an impressionist vagueness, which spoke to him.

"There’s enough room in his style for the viewer to actually bring the painting to life," said McGill. He was drawn not to the significance of the cathedral but to the crowd of people crossing the bridge. He wanted to know their stories. "Yes, the cathedral is beautiful but I'm fascinated by a day in the life of any of those people around the cathedral, around this landmark. That’s the energy that I feel," said McGill.

Luce's "Notre Dame" has been a blurry-but-constant look at the cathedral for over a hundred years. But just over a year ago, when its famous spire was destroyed by fire, the piece shows how art can (and will) take on new meaning as the turbulent history unfolds. Which feels as timely as ever.

The vagueness of Luce’s narrative also made McGill’s musical selection simple: Debussy. The work of composer Claude Debussy marks a parallel between the historical movement of impressionism in the visual art world and the musical world, with a dreamlike wonder that skirts the edge of clarity, much like Luce's portrayal of Notre Dame.


McGill opted for Debussy's 1913 work for solo flute, "Syrinx." The piece tells the story of Pan and his love for the nymph Syrinx, who, according to legend, transformed herself into reeds by the riverside to hide from Pan. When he furiously cut down every reed, including Syrinx, to make into his beloved pan flute, he destined the nymph to forever hang from his neck.

"It leaves enough room for me to actually mold the story as I see fit, and for you — the listener — to also claim the story, even though the story may be and most likely is very different from my perspective and yours," said McGill of performing the composition.

McGill — one of a relatively small population of black classical musicians in the country — has found his own transformation during the last few months. As the pandemic forced his art to shift online, the current uprising and a recentered national dialogue on race has sparked a new passion in him.

"As a black classical musician specifically, I want to use everything I do, whether it’s playing or speaking, to affect change, positive change," said McGill. "And that’s what I've been doing on a variety of different levels… trying to make change in the classical institutions I'm a part of, trying to make change as a mentor," he said.

In addition to seeking out emerging black musicians and providing support — both financially and through mentorships — McGill is also committing himself to bringing about change in the institutions he works with. He's asking organizations, including his own Seattle Symphony, to commit themselves to making specific, institutional changes that will help them better serve and collaborate with their communities.

"This is an opportunity for larger arts organizations to make adjustments, not just because of what’s happening socially in this country and around the world. But even because of the virus, there’s time now to come up with different plans, to make adjustments to mission statements to include communities that have been underserved and neglected by these art forms," McGill said.

Demarre McGill performs Debussy's "Syrinx" as part of SDMA+ Art of Elan on Tuesday, June 23 at 6 p.m. via YouTube. Future performances include San Diego Symphony harpist Julie Smith Phillips, violinist Keir GoGwilt, flutist Rose Lombardo and trumpeter Stephanie Richards.