SCHENECTADY — Anthony McGill, who will perform today at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the International Festival of Chamber Music, has a career that could be the envy of many orchestral clarinetists.
Instead of being hidden in the orchestra pit at the Metropolitan Opera, where he has been the principal clarinetist since 2004, he has achieved a high visibility onstage — and sometimes in the most unlikely places.
Brought up in Chicago, he was a member of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and attended the famed Interlochen Center for the Arts before heading to Curtis Institute of Music. His skills were so impressive that he began attending Marlboro Music during his summers, where he connected with its co-director, pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who took him on tour with her to Japan in 2001. By then, McGill had already won the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, given only to highly talented musicians who have the makings of achieving a substantial career.
By the time he graduated from Curtis at age 20, he had his first orchestral job: associate principal clarinet with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. More festivals followed, including Mainly Mozart, Music @ Menlo, and Music from Angel Fire, and he began to work with such luminaries as Itzhak Perlman, Yefim Bronfman, Gil Shaham and Midori.
WHERE: Union College Memorial Chapel, Schenectady
WHEN: 3 p.m. today
HOW MUCH: $25, $10
MORE INFO: 388-6080; www.unioncollegeconcerts.org
When he got his job with the Met’s orchestra, his chamber music career didn’t miss a beat, and he began to add teaching to his busy schedule as well as giving master classes and coaching.
Making great strides
Despite this success, McGill was still known mostly only to classical music fans. That changed when he and Yo-Yo Ma, Perlman and Gabriela Montero performed John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts” at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama before thousands in the crowd and millions of television viewers.
Since then McGill has been awarded the Sphinx Organization’s Medal of Excellence (2012), appeared as soloist with the Met orchestra at its occasional Carnegie Hall concerts as well as with other orchestras, performed at several more music festivals including the 2012 Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival in South Africa, and become a faculty member at a few more music schools, which now include Juilliard, Peabody, Mannes and Bard.
A few weeks ago, he had barely gotten off the plane from Chicago where he’d played with the Chicago Sinfonietta, when he took a few minutes to talk.
Q: How do you manage to fit all your gigs into your schedule at the Met?
A: I have split time. There’s a co-principal clarinetist who plays when I’m not there and I play when he’s not. But we don’t have to play seven shows a week anymore. Now, it’s four. So I get a few extra days. I manage to sneak out here and there to do a concert.
Q: How do clarinet parts in opera compare to regular orchestral parts?
A: Clarinet parts are really wonderful in opera. They’re quite different. But it’s mostly about working in the pit rather than being on stage. On stage you must be more in front with a different kind of energy. The environment is different. But I don’t try to separate them (where he plays). I find they round out my musicianship.
Q: Do you ever do things differently because the audience can’t see you in the pit?
A: I never think about dealing or not dealing with the audience. I’m always performing. I never think no one is listening to me. I think of it like I do chamber music — to make it beautiful music. That keeps my energy strong.
Q: For an orchestral clarinetist, you have made remarkable connections to the chamber music/solo worlds. That’s not usual. How did it happen?
A: Ever since I was in school, I was into the chamber music scene. It always was a part of my repertoire. I didn’t just study orchestral excerpts. I’d been doing chamber music since I was in my teens. There wasn’t a guarantee that I’d get an orchestra job, so I networked to know a lot of friends who played, although I did audition for orchestras my last two years of school.
Q: How did you get the gig at the inauguration?
A: Actually, Yo-Yo called me. I knew him from a tour I did in 2001 with Mitsuko Uchida and Mark Steinberg. Yo-Yo played Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” with us. I had played it only a few times, and he’s such an amazing person.
Q: It looked cold that day. Did you all actually play live?
A: It was freezing cold. We played as much as we could but we had an emergency recording. We wanted to be there and have the piece heard, so we decided to broadcast the tape and do our best and play along with the tape. You don’t bail out on the president of the United States.
Q: What’s the Sphinx medal?
A: That’s a competition to discover minority players. It used to be only a string competition. In 2012, they awarded for the first time older professionals who had made their mark. It was a cash award and I got a medal.
Every time I go to D.C. it’s pretty amazing. I received that award at the U.S. Supreme Court. I even met some of the justices.
Q: What kind of program will you play at Union and who is your pianist?
A: I’m doing Debussy’s “Première Rhapsodie” and Poulenc’s Sonata. These are old cherished pieces that I’ve played for years. Then, there are Schumann’s Romances, Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant, which I’ve not done so much; Berg’s Four Pieces, which are wonderful, gorgeous very short pieces. I did them five or six years ago with James Levine, and I’d never played Berg before I played his operas at the Met.
I’m also doing some preludes by Scriabin arranged from his piano pieces. I’d heard my teacher play them on a CD and it took me a while to find the music. They’re beautiful.
My pianist is Gloria Chien. She has a pedigree of her own, having debuted with the Boston Symphony at 16. She’s one of my regular pianists the last two years.
Q: How do you feel about doing this Sunday recital?
A: I have opera all around on Saturday and Monday. I can’t wait.