The high artistry of clarinetist Anthony McGill thrilled a large crowd Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 41st International Festival of Chamber Music. After every piece, the crowd erupted in enthusiastic applause and loud hoots of delight.
McGill was making his debut on the series with the assistance of the excellent pianist Gloria Chien.
He chose a balanced program that seemed heavy on pieces of longing, but, he said, he saw them as uplifting despite their surface sadness. More, the pieces were the “sounds of my life,” he said. “I’ve been listening to them since I was little.”
To all of them, he brought much feeling, a burnished tone, a marvelous sense of line, and a smooth connectedness to the notes, which made the phrases silken.
What an asset he must be in the pit at the Metropolitan Opera where he plays principal clarinet.
They began with Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie. Both players floated their sounds in hazy colors over long lines. Nuances were subtle, even as there were splashes of technique. McGill’s breathing was unobtrusive and his control of the high notes at super soft levels was impressive. Chien provided exceptional balance.
Arrangements of four of Scriabin’s piano preludes were like short commentaries. The first was frothy; the famous second prelude was a refined lament and very beautiful; the third was sunnier but still sad; the last had strong melodic statements. McGill played them with much finesse.
Poulenc’s bright, sunny and happy Sonata had everything a clarinet fan could love and the duo mined the territory. McGill was very sure- fingered in the quick tempos and sang the slow second movement’s lovely melody with a tender passion. Everything was exquisitely finished.
Schumann’s Three Romances were dreamy, introspective and very mellow. The duo stretched the phrases nicely and kept the pace light and sweet without dwelling too much. They created much atmosphere. They kept that mood going in Berg’s Four Pieces.
McGill said he loved the music’s character. Although they were all abstract and very short, they had specific gestures that hinted at pain, happiness, loneliness or even anger. McGill impressed throughout, especially in being able to play so softly that the notes were bare peeps.
For Carl Maria von Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant, it was all technical virtuosity with flawless runs, exuberant tempos and an approach that focused on being graceful and charming rather than extroverted and schmaltzy. The crowd loved it and gave the musicians a standing ovation.
The next concert in the chamber music series is scheduled for March 3 when pianist Vladimir Feltsman will perform.