Anthony McGill determined to add voices to the classical music narrative

©Matthew Septimus

Anthony McGill stands as one of the globe's most accomplished clarinetists, and since the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, he has emerged as a high-profile voice for change in the classical-music world.

“It’s so important that people realize that fairness, equity and equality in the world come from people having equal access to all things, whether that is justice in the legal system or whether that’s through music and the gift of music and what the brings to a young person,” said McGill, the first African-American principal player in the New York Philharmonic.

This musician-advocate has special ties to Chicago, because he grew up in Chatham and spent his early formative years as a musician in the city. He has returned periodically to his hometown for performances, but one important milestone has eluded him — until now. He will make his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on July 23 at Ravinia, joining Marin Alsop, who is in her first season as the festival's first-ever chief conductor and curator.

McGill is belatedly following in the footsteps of his older brother, Demarre, a flutist who made his inaugural appearance with the CSO in 1991 as one of six finalists in the Illinois Young Performers Competition. Demarre, who serves as principal flutist of the Seattle Symphony, was 15 at the time and tied for first place in the junior division. “That’s one of the things I saw growing up that made me really want to become a musician — seeing my brother on stage with the Chicago Symphony,” said McGill, who is about four years younger.

At Ravinia, he will serve as soloist in Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, one of the most frequently performed such works for the instrument and one that McGill “loves.” Famed clarinetist Benny Goodman commissioned it and joined Fritz Reiner and the NBC Symphony Orchestra for the premiere in 1950.

At the urging of his parents, who saw music as part of a well-rounded education, and wanting to follow in the footsteps of his brother, McGill sought to play an instrument as well. “He really dove into the flute all the way,” he said of Demarre. “I remember him practicing before and after school and late hours into the night. I saw how much drive he had, and I saw his passion for playing, and his passion for communicating through music. That was a huge influence on me.”

In fourth grade, when he was signing up for band class in school, the younger brother clamored to play the flute, too, but his mother demurred. “Your brother plays the flute, so you have to play something different,” he recalls her saying. So he chose the saxophone but was told it was too big for him at that age, finally settling on the clarinet at the suggestion of the director.

Like his brother, he began studying at the nationally known Merit School of Music, now located in the West Loop, and he was soon spending summers at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. When he was 15, he began boarding school at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy.

McGill knew he wanted to make the clarinet his career by the time he was 12 or 13. “I just realized that I really loved music and being around other young musicians,” he said. “Around that time, I was going to camp at Interlochen. Musicians and artists were just my people, my folks. That’s when I was like, ‘Yeah, I could really do this.’”

After a decade-long stint as principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, McGill was appointed to the same post with the New York Philharmonic seven years ago. “It’s been great,” he said. “I spent 10 years at the Met, and I definitely wanted to play the symphonic repertoire, because I hadn’t gotten to play too much of it except for the two years in [the] Cincinnati [Symphony],` where I was associate principal [clarinetist]. So it’s been a dream to play all those pieces I grew up learning and also getting to play concerti with the orchestra.”

Even though the New York Philharmonic, like ensembles across the country, was forced to shut down in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, McGill remained highly visible because of his words and actions in response to Floyd’s killing.

On May 27, 2020, he posted a video of himself playing a mournful version of America the Beautiful in a minor key and sinking to his knees at the end, a tribute to quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests of police violence. He called on other classical musicians to follow him with the hashtag #TakeTwoKnees.

A few months later, he was one of nine Black musicians asked by the New York Times to offer ideas of how to begin transforming the white-dominated world of classical music. Among the sobering statistics, the Institute for Composer Diversity, for example, reports that works by composers from underrepresented racial, ethnic and cultural groups made up only 6 percent of the 2019-20 programming by 120 orchestras nationwide.

For McGill, change does not mean silencing any musical voices now heard on classical stages. “It’s not about excluding,” he said. “I think we’ve done enough excluding in our field and in the world. It’s about including more voices in the story, in the narrative, so that as listeners, as audience members, we can have a have full menu to choose from.”

And he believes progress has been made in the last year, with both a heightened awareness of the problem and classical organizations already making significant shifts in programming and hiring, and that more will come. “What happened last year,” he said, “to all of us has shifted so many hearts and minds toward more awareness of what we can do to make the world a better place, which is to be able to say that we stand for what is right for all people and we want to be part of the movement.”

In tribute to both his musicianship and his leadership within the classical field, McGill was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize by New York’s Lincoln Center in September 2020. Previous recipients of the honor, which comes with $100,000, include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Leila Josefowicz.

“I was really thrilled to learn of the news of that, especially with everything that happened last year," he said. "It was obviously a bright spot for me. It was really amazing not just because it’s nice to be honored but also because of the people who became before and won that award and what their presence means as performers and musicians as well as citizens of the world.”

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