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Principal flutist McGhee already feels at home with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

| Friday, Sept. 2, 2011

The long wait finally was over this spring. After more than a decade without a principal flute, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra hired Scottish flutist Lorna McGhee to complete its woodwind section.

McGhee was principal flute for the Pittsburgh Symphony's concerts and recording of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in May, and is performing with the orchestra on its current European tour. She'll play several weeks at Heinz Hall this fall and start full time at the end of January.

When Manfred Honeck became music director in 2008, he said publicly that the symphony would take as long as it needed to fill vacancies. But behind the scenes at Heinz Hall, Honeck said he wanted to move the process more quickly to find a principal flute.

Although he'd heard several strong candidates, he decided to hear McGhee, too, after listening to one of her recordings. She was invited to perform with the orchestra in July 2010 at the Lanaudiere Festival in Quebec.

"When she started to play her audition, you immediately got involved in her playing," Honeck says. "When you hear an outstanding soloist or performer, you immediately start to listen in a different way."

McGhee's salary was not disclosed, but the base salary for Pittsburgh Symphony musicians in the 2011-12 season is $100,110. Principal players make considerably more.

McGhee's new colleagues -- not only in the wind section -- are impressed by her timbral flexibility and the boldness, even risk taking, of her playing. Principal players perform the solos written for their instrument in orchestral music. But orchestral musicians, even principals, more often function as ensemble players than soloists. Having a settled group of artists is a big advantage for an orchestra's identity.

McGhee says she's thrilled that she'll be working with Honeck and the orchestra.

"He's so nice to work with and such a great musician. I love listening to his ideas," she says. "He's someone who brings the music alive, who really cares. It's not just doing house work and just making things neat. I feel he's really generating something magical."

McGhee says she's starting to feel at home already.

"The other principal winds (Cindy DeAlmeida, oboe, Michael Rusinek, clarinet and Nancy Goeres, bassoon) play so well together, with such clear musical intention that it makes it easy to fit in. And the other flutes have been very supportive.

"The whole wind section is so strong, it's like a dream team," McGhee says.

The 39-year-old was born and raised in Largs, on the west coast of Scotland about an hour from Glasgow. She began piano at 6, but decided not to follow her older sister Anne's example of adding violin.

"I had endured two years of my sister learning violin," she says. "I had just heard James Galway and was very taken with the sound of the flute."

She began learning flute on her own when she was 8, then, studied with an oboist in Largs. The most significant event of her early musical life was getting a scholarship when she was 11 to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in Glasgow. At first, she was horrified she would have to give up horseback riding, which, until then, occupied her Saturdays. Then, she began working with David Nicholson, principal flute of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and everything changed.

"He was an incredibly gifted teacher. He motivated his students. He actually made people love music and be excited about what they were doing," she says.

When McGhee continued her studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, she was blessed with another extraordinary teacher, world-renowned flutist William Bennett.

"When I hear the sound he makes, I find it incredibly beneficial," she says. "It feels like it puts all the molecules in your body in the right order. There's an incredible generosity in the way he plays, which I think is very rare and magical when you hear it. In this profession, where there's so much pressure and so much being judged, it's amazing for someone to have a free spirit and rise above it."

McGhee's early professional career included being co-principal flute of the BBC Symphony, guest principal flute with other orchestras and playing lots of chamber music.

She met her future husband, Canadian violist David Harding, at a chamber music festival in Scotland in 1997 and married the next year.

"When we got together, it was a bit of a whirlwind romance. We were engaged after two months," she says. "Then, we started looking for work in each other's countries."

They settled in Vancouver. In addition to teaching, they logged many miles flying to concerts. Most of their summers were spent at festivals.

"I love doing chamber music, but when I look at David, he's playing Brahms and Shostakovich. The only chance I have to play music like that -- something to sink your teeth into -- is in orchestra," she says. "The wind parts of Brahms symphonies are the most beautiful chamber music, so intricate."

McGhee might have become principal flute of the Pittsburgh Symphony in 2006, but the circumstances weren't right. She played concerts with the orchestra and is the first flute on its recording of Johannes Brahms' Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 conducted by Marek Janowski.

But there was no job in Pittsburgh for her husband, and having moved across the Atlantic to be with him she wasn't about to have a long-distance marriage on the North American continent.

Fortunately, Carnegie Mellon University's school of music decided in 2009 to create a full-time teaching position in viola and chamber music. Noel Zahler, head of the school, says the candidates the first year weren't strong enough, but last year several promising candidates turned up.

"When David Harding put in his application, the rest became history," Zahler says.

Harding was selected by a faculty committee. He starts part time in January and full time next August 2012.

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