Clarinetist Anthony McGill returns home for his belated CSO debut

Tue Jul 20, 2021 at 2:00 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, performs Friday night at the Ravinia Festival. Photo: Eric Rudd

When Anthony McGill makes his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut Friday at Ravinia in Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, it will be a homecoming of sorts.

Born and raised in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, he spent his childhood Saturdays downtown at the Merit School of Music. When he was 12, Larry Combs, then the CSO’s celebrated principal clarinet, took him on as a student. McGill’s audition piece for Combs was the Copland concerto. He will perform the work with Marin Alsop, Ravinia’s chief conductor and curator, who will be on the podium Friday night. 

But, unlike most CSO debutants, McGill is not a rising young talent on the cusp of a starry career. He celebrated his 42nd birthday last week, and his star is already firmly embedded in the classical music firmament. Principal clarinet at the New York Philharmonic since 2014, he joined the orchestra after a decade as principal clarinet at the Metropolitan Opera. He performed at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and last year won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, which carries a $100,000 stipend.

In a sense, McGill’s life in music was pre-ordained. The small Chicago bungalow where he grew up had a room dedicated solely to art and creativity. His mother, Ira Carol McGill, was a modern dancer, an art teacher and a dance movement therapist. His father, Demarre McGill, who rose through the ranks of the Chicago Fire Department and retired with the title of Deputy Commissioner, was actively interested in all kinds of art. His older brother, Demarre, is currently principal flute of the Seattle Symphony. Their parents now live in Las Vegas.

“Both of my parents were art educators and visual artists,” McGill said, in a phone conversation from Vermont, where he is working with students at the Marlboro Music Festival. “They were lovers of music, so we always had music around the house. It was part of how we lived.” 

Anthony also wanted to emulate his flutist big brother. As adults, the two have performed together and in January organized a free, multi-day virtual festival in Orange County, showcasing artists and composers from marginalized communities. 

“I settled on the clarinet because I wanted to play an instrument like my brother,” said McGill. “In fourth grade, I really loved the saxophone, but the alto sax was way too big for me. So my band teacher said I should pick up the clarinet, and I could switch to the saxophone. But I never switched. I never went back to the saxophone ever again.”

One reason McGill pursued classical music is because he didn’t feel like an outsider in its largely white world. From age 10 he belonged to the Chicago Teen Ensemble, a group that gave concerts at South Side Chicago churches. His first youth orchestra conductor was Michael Morgan, a black musician and former Chicago Symphony assistant conductor who is currently music director of the Oakland Symphony in California.

“I was lucky enough that I saw people who looked like me who played classical music,” said McGill.

Anthony McGill performing as soloist in 2019 with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee/NYP

But in May 2020, two months into the Covid-19 pandemic, his status as a black man in America stared him in the face. On May 25, George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman. Three days later, McGill posted a 1:33-minute video titled #TakeTwoKnees that reverberated throughout the classical music world. Standing in his living room, he plays “America the Beautiful”as an aching lament haunted by a few soul-piercing “wrong” notes and a final note that never arrives. At the end, he kneels on both knees, hands behind his back holding his clarinet.

“#TakeTwoKnees was not a planned thing,” McGill said. “It was a personal reaction to everything that was going on in our country. I couldn’t sleep one night, and I needed to express myself, directly. So I started writing, putting down my thoughts about life, about our country, my sense of pride in that country and my disheartening, painful experiences as a black person in this country. And about why we should all come together for equality and for justice.”

He knew that words were not enough. 

“I’m a musician. The most direct way I can communicate with people who don’t know me is through my music,” McGill said. But because of the pandemic, he continued, “I hadn’t been doing that for months. So it was a chance for me to explore that as an artist in a way I’d never really explored before. By playing that piece, “America the Beautiful,” I could communicate who I was, what I was feeling and, also, give my thoughts about what it means to be an American.”

McGill was surprised by the mostly positive reaction.

“I got a massive amount of good thoughts from musicians and writers and dancers and a whole community of people who I didn’t even know were out there,” he said. “They were basically saying the same thing—We stand with you. We stand with our brothers and sisters who are dying around the country. We stand with our neighbors and those who aren’t our neighbors as well. Through music, the way we communicate with people throughout the world, so many people were able to take two knees. To say, ‘Enough is enough.’ “

Though this is his belated CSO debut McGill has returned regularly for concerts in his hometown. In 2016 he performed Geoffrey Gordon’s Clarinet Quintet with JACK Quartet for the American Music Project. And in 2019 the McGill brothers appeared together on the Pritzker Pavilion stage performing Joel Puckett’s Concerto Duo—a work they commissioned—with the Grant Park Orchestra

After an initially “scary” month when the pandemic first hit, McGill managed to stay active professionally during the ensuing shutdown. As a faculty member at The Juilliard School, the Curtis Institute of Music and Bard College’s Conservatory of Music, he continued to teach and organize programs via Zoom. He is also artistic director of Juilliard’s Music Advancement Program, a Saturday program for gifted students similar to the one he attended at Merit. The 2020 Avery Fisher Prize carried an additional $30,000 for a charity of McGill’s choice; he used the money to set up a scholarship program for Music Advancement Program students.

He has also made some recordings during the pandemic, and in March appeared with the Catalyst Quartet in a recital at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.  He is looking forward to getting back onstage. 

“I love the audiences,” he said. “I love that people show up to listen, to be a part of this experience. The performing experience is nothing without people who want to listen to it.” 

Anthony McGill perform Copland’s Clarinet Concerto with Marin Alsop and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 8 p.m. Friday at Ravinia. The program also includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 60 “Il distratto” and Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn.

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