Siblings in chamber music have extra mystique: In an art form that thrives on the freedom that comes with familiarity between performers, siblings often bring an extra telepathy to their concerts, allowing two musical voices to act as one.
So the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society audience that packed the American Philosophical Society had a right to have special expectations for the flute/clarinet duo of Demarre and Anthony McGill on Tuesday, as have others before them: As kids, the two accomplished McGills were featured on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Now, they come together amid busy schedules, Demarre from the Metropolitan Opera and Anthony from the New York Philharmonic. But their musical kinship is so obvious you could have been listening with a blindfold on and know that something unusual was happening.
In a program of French and American music, the McGills were more urban than urbane, with their respective Poulenc sonatas, sharing a highly attractive liquid vibrancy in their sustained notes. They don't routinely attack notes but tend to shift pitch fluidly, not in any pear-shaped European fashion but with a more straightforward American efficiency. As with musicians who spend the majority of their time in orchestras, the recital didn't have the ultimate degree of polish one hears from virtuosi who aren't spread so thin. Though they can play off each other with hair-trigger precision, their blends are, for lack of a better word, amazing, creating a hybrid sonority I don't think I've previously heard.
The chamber-music repertoire for flute and clarinet is so scant you had to take what you were given. Poulenc's late-period sonatas for flute and clarinet are unquestionably first-class. However, Shostakovich's Four Waltzes weren't really worth anybody's time, showing the composer being intentionally trivial without subversive subtext. Paul Schoenfield is always a welcome musical handful, with his Sonatina for Flute, Clarinet, and Piano presenting sort of a warp-speed panorama of American popular music and dance styles as though it's the most natural thing in the world. The big discovery was Chris Rogerson, whose A Fish Will Rise had both instruments going lyrically awry in ways so engaging that Rachmaninoff's Vocalise (arranged with flute carrying most of the melody and clarinet supplying the counterpoint) was a slight letdown.
The other discovery was pianist Michael McHale. Why haven't we heard of this guy before? His playing was brimming with rhythmic vitality and a symphonic sense of scope, though always within the boundaries of good chamber-music manners. The Poulenc sonatas used color, pedal, and phrasing in ways that externalized the music's expression while respecting the lean sonority favored by the generation of French pianists for whom the composer wrote.
The best news is that McHale and both McGills will enter the recording studio in the coming weeks, so we haven't heard the last of this threesome.