When Anthony McGill makes his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut on Friday at Ravinia in Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, it will be kind of like a homecoming.
Born and raised in the Chatham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, he spent his childhood on Saturdays downtown at the Merit School of Music. At the age of 12, Larry Combs, then famous principal clarinet of the CSO, took him as a pupil. McGill’s audition piece for Combs was the Copland Concerto. He also performed the work with Marin Alsop, conductor and curator of Ravinia, who will be on the podium on Friday evening.
But, unlike most OSC rookies, McGill is not a young talent in the making on the cusp of a star-studded career. He celebrated his 42sd anniversary last week, and its star is already well established in the firmament of classical music. Principal clarinet at the New York Philharmonic since 2014, he joined the orchestra after a decade as principal clarinet at the Metropolitan Opera. It performed during the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009 and last year won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, with a scholarship of $ 100,000.
In a sense, McGill’s musical life was pre-established. The tiny Chicago bungalow where he grew up had a room dedicated solely to art and creativity. Her mother, Ira Carol McGill, was a modern dancer, art teacher and 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 manner of art. His older brother, Demarre, is currently principal flute of the Seattle Symphony. Their parents now live in Las Vegas.
âBoth of my parents were art teachers and visual artists,â McGill said in a telephone conversation from Vermont, where he works with students at the Marlboro Music Festival. âThey were in love with music, so we always had music at home. It was part of our way of life.
Anthony also wanted to imitate his older flautist brother. As adults, the two performed together and held a free multi-day virtual festival in Orange County in January, featuring artists and songwriters from marginalized communities.
âI chose the clarinet because I wanted to play an instrument like my brother,â said McGill. âIn fourth grade, I really liked the saxophone, but the alto saxophone was way too big for me. So my orchestra teacher said that I had to take the clarinet and that I could switch to the saxophone. But I never changed. I never went back to the saxophone again.
One of the reasons McGill pursued classical music was that he didn’t feel like an outsider in his largely white world. From the age of 10, he was part of the Chicago Teen Ensemble, a group that gave concerts in churches on the South Side of Chicago. His first youth conductor was Michael Morgan, a black musician and former assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony, currently musical director of the Oakland Symphony in California.
âI was fortunate to see people who looked like me and who played classical music,â said McGill.
But in May 2020, two months after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, his status as a black man in America stared him in the face. On May 25, George Floyd died below the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Three days later, McGill released a 33-minute video titled #TakeTwoKnees that resonated throughout the classical music world. Standing in his living room, he plays “America the Beautiful” like a painful lament haunted by a few “false” notes that pierce the soul and a final note that never arrives. At the end, he kneels on both knees, his hands behind his back holding his clarinet.
â#TakeTwoKnees was not a planned thing,â said McGill. âIt was a personal reaction to everything that was happening in our country. I couldn’t sleep one night and needed to speak directly. So I started to write, putting my thoughts on life, on our country, my sense of pride for this country and my discouraging and painful experiences as a black person in this country. And why we should all unite for equality and for justice.
He knew words weren’t enough.
âI’m a musician. The most direct way for me to communicate with people who don’t know me is through my music,â McGill said. But because of the pandemic, he continued, âI hadn’t done it in months. So it was a chance for me to explore this as an artist in a way that I had never really explored before. By playing this track, “America the Beautiful “I was able to communicate who I was, how I felt and also give my opinion on what it means to be an American.
McGill was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction.
âI received a tremendous amount of good thoughts from musicians, writers and dancers and a whole community of people that I didn’t even know were there,â he said. âThey were basically saying the same thing: we’re on your side. We stand with our brothers and sisters who are dying across the country. We stand in solidarity with our neighbors and with those who are not our neighbors as well. Thanks to the music, the way we communicate with people around the world, so many people were able to get down on their knees. Say âEnough is enoughâ. “
Although this is his late debut at CSO, McGill returns regularly for concerts in his hometown. In 2016, he performed Geoffrey Gordon’s Clarinet Quintet with the JACK Quartet for the American Music Project. And in 2019, the McGill brothers appeared together on stage at the Pritzker Pavilion in the portrayal of Joel Puckett. Duo of concertosâA work they commissioned â with the Grant Park Orchestra
After an initially “scary” month when the pandemic first hit, McGill has managed to remain professionally active during the ensuing shutdown. As a faculty member at The Juilliard School, Curtis Institute of Music, and Bard College Conservatory of Music, he continued to teach and run programs through Zoom. He is also artistic director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s Music Advancement Program, a Saturday program for gifted students similar to the one he attended at Merit. The 2020 Avery Fisher Prize awarded an additional $ 30,000 to a McGill charity of choice; he used the money to set up a scholarship program for Music Advancement Program students.
He also made a few recordings during the pandemic and appeared in March with the Catalyst Quartet in a recital at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He can’t wait to get back on stage.
âI love the audience,â he says. âI like that people come forward to listen, to be a part of this experience. The experience of the show is nothing without the people who want to listen to it.
Anthony McGill performs Copland’s Clarinet Concerto with Marin Alsop and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Friday at 8 p.m. in Ravinia. The program also includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 60 “Il distratto” and that of Brahms Variations on a theme by Haydn. ravinia.org
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