Jan
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Chicago Classical Artist- Center Stage at Obama's Inauguration

I know Anthony McGill. I knew him way before he won a single audition. Anthony I am so proud of you!

This article was written By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Published: January 18, 2009 in the New York Times
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Yes, the inauguration — but first, the music. In the moments before Barack Obama is sworn in as president and delivers his Inaugural Address on Tuesday, another South Side Chicagoan will produce eloquence, of a musical kind.

He is Anthony McGill, a clarinetist who will join the violinist Itzhak Perlman, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the pianist Gabriela Montero. They will play a piece composed for the occasion by John Williams, perhaps best known for his film scores and pops conducting.

Mr. McGill, 29, was plucked from the ranks of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he is one of two principal clarinetists, by Mr. Ma, who was asked to help organize the performance.

“It’s the most wonderful opportunity, obviously, I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Mr. McGill said at a breakfast interview in an Upper West Side cafe near his home a week before the inauguration. “It’s just great to be part of something like this, as a person, as an American, as a musician.”

He continued, “If my life as a musician is about reaching out to people, being able to communicate music to the world and to people on my small scale — my clarinet playing — this is obviously such a gift.”

A month after receiving the invitation, Mr. McGill still seemed a little stunned. “I thought they were going to say, ‘Sorry,’ ” he said. Even when he saw his name on the news release, “I was like, ‘That’s crazy.’ ”

Mr. McGill is not a world-famous soloist like Mr. Perlman or Mr. Ma; the Met is only his second job, which he took four years ago after a stint as the associate principal and E flat clarinetist in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. But he has quietly come to be recognized among colleagues for his sensitive playing and refined musicianship.

Those qualities stood out for Mr. Ma eight years ago, when he and Mr. McGill played Messiaen’s “Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps” (“Quartet for the End of Time”) in Japan. “I was so struck just by his artistry,” Mr. Ma said in a telephone interview. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I really want to play with him again.’ ”

Mr. Ma said he recalled that sentiment when the organizers of the inauguration asked him and Mr. Perlman to put together an ensemble.

He noted that the group consisted of the same instrumentation as the Messiaen piece. The Williams work, however, “will be more like ‘Quartet for the Next Four Minutes,’ ” he said.

The piece evokes the music of Copland, who is said to be a favorite of Mr. Obama’s. “We wanted something that could reference America, the president-elect’s fondness for Copland, something that’s both uplifting and solemn, that traverses time but is also quintessentially American,” Mr. Ma said.

The musicians began rehearsing on Tuesday. They were not just thinking about the notes, but also about how to keep warm during the inauguration. Long underwear and hand warmers were on the agenda.

Mr. McGill is a product of the Merit Music School, a 30-year-old community program established to fill the gap in music education in Chicago schools. He attributes much of his success to that program.

His father is a retired deputy fire commissioner; his mother recently found a new career as an actress after retiring as an art teacher. His older brother, Demarre, now the principal flutist of the San Diego Symphony, was an important influence and role model, he said.

Anthony McGill attended the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Michelle Obama’s alma mater, and finished high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, Mich. He moved on to the elite Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for his bachelor’s degree, immediately winning the job in Cincinnati after graduation.

The McGills are among the few principal wind players in a major orchestra who are African-American, a distinction noteworthy in a field with far fewer people of color than other areas of American life.

Mr. McGill said that he recognized and valued the contribution of older African-Americans who integrated American orchestras. After encountering Norman Johns, a member of the Cincinnati cello section who is also African-American, Mr. McGill said, “I looked in Norman’s eyes when I walked in, and I could see how proud he was of me.” But like other African-American musicians of his generation, he does not wake up every day and think about his role. “If you’re a musician, you play music,” he said.

After the breakfast interview, Mr. McGill headed to Lincoln Center for a rehearsal with the center’s Chamber Music Society. The group plunged into the sextet for piano and winds by Poulenc, to be performed in concert at the Rose Studio in Manhattan later that week.

Mr. McGill played sitting back in his seat. He moved his upper body in sympathy with the angular, jerky rhythms, adding unexpected dynamic inflections and blending or deftly emerging when his part called for it. He watched his colleagues when they had solos, at one point rubbing the floor with his foot to signify praise for a passage by Peter Kolkay, the bassoonist.

Though Mr. McGill did not guide the rehearsal, he did speak out occasionally. He also took some good-natured ribbing about his next gig. Stephen Taylor, the group’s oboist, chanted, “You’re getting ready for the inauguration!” to a march tempo and told him that once on the inaugural stage, “You have to take requests.”

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