By Michael Cameron
When clarinetist Anthony McGill visits Ravinia on July 15 to perform the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with the Takács String Quartet, the occasion will be the latest of numerous homecomings the Chicago native has enjoyed since he left the nest for the Interlochen Music Academy and the Curtis Institute of Music many years ago. Originally from the Chatham neighborhood on the city’s South Side, McGill and his unlikely rise to the summit of the clarinet world was fueled by a supreme talent, supportive family, several key local mentors, and an unflagging determination.
“There was always music playing,” McGill recalled of that home environment, speaking to Ravinia magazine from his present residence in New York. “We listened to a variety of things, including R&B and soul stars like Marvin Gaye and Al Green. My mom had been a dancer, and she liked to choreograph modern dance to classical music. She also loved Broadway musicals.” Clearly he was not left wanting for exposure to the arts.
McGill also spoke in reverent terms about the role played by his brother Demarre at several critical junctures in his musical life. “My brother started playing the flute at age 7, and while my parents weren’t musicians, they thought it important that their kids be exposed to music,” he said. “We each took a year of piano lessons, but then decided to pick another instrument, in part because we couldn’t afford a real piano. We happened to have a flute in the closet because my dad had been interested in it long ago.” Four years Anthony’s elder, Demarre set an example of discipline and artistic accomplishment that was a powerful inspiration. At age 15, the flutist performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after winning the Illinois Young Performers Competition. Local solo competitions such as these are usually won by musicians from the suburbs, where the infrastructure for classical music training is much better funded than in most city schools. His victory was no fluke—Demarre is now the principal flutist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. “I wanted to do everything he did”, said Anthony, “and when I was big enough at age 9 to hold an instrument, I chose the clarinet.”
McGill attended Whitney Young Magnet High School, but it was soon clear to his parents that they needed to look elsewhere to adequately nurture the budding young talent. His first important teacher was David Tuttle at the Merit School of Music, and he later received expert guidance from Stanley Davis, a longtime member of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s orchestra. Before long, his parents were shuttling him to DePaul University for weekly lessons from Julie DeRoche and biweekly sessions with Larry Combs, the legendary former principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. McGill cites Combs and Richard Stoltzman as the clarinet players he most emulated in his youth.
McGill later attended the summer program at the Interlochen Center for the Arts summer camp in northern Michigan, an experience that solidified his determination to make music a career. “Those summers at Interlochen were especially crucial because I met so many other kids who were as serious about music as I was,” he said. “I became very comfortable with the social environment of being around other driven young musicians. I was blessed with two amazing teachers there—Sydney Forest [a longtime professor at the Peabody Conservatory] and Richard Hawkins [from the Oberlin Conservatory].” The next step was enrollment in Interlochen’s boarding school, and so quick was his musical and academic progress that he graduated after the 11th grade.
Arguably the biggest decision in a young musician’s life is the choice of a suitable institution of higher education, a process that entails an often agonizing appraisal of the benefits of a university or conservatory atmosphere, and the search for a teacher who can help the student make the leap from talented teenager to polished professional. Once again, Anthony followed the footsteps of his brother and enrolled at the renowned (and fiercely competitive) Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia: “I was trying to continue my brother’s legacy, and he really helped me make the transition. The level of playing was very high, and the musical environment was demanding and inspiring.” The history of the institution itself, as well as ghosts of students past, left McGill with a sense of awe in those hallowed halls. “I really felt the weight of the past and the continuation of old school traditions,” he said. “We were even expected to dress up for lessons!” His studies continued with Donald Montinaro, who was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra for nearly 50 years.
McGill had played in excellent student orchestras before, but the demands at Curtis required that he set the bar even higher. He came under the spell of Otto-Werner Mueller—the brilliant conductor, teacher, and notorious taskmaster who passed away earlier this year at age 89—recalling, “It was [with him] that I really learned how to be a professional. The rehearsals were really tough and demanding.”
He began the orchestra audition circuit his senior year, a task that can be stressful and frustrating even for the finest players. But McGill didn’t need to wait long, landing the associate principal clarinet chair in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the age of 20. A few years later, in 2004, he was appointed to the principal chair in the one of the finest ensembles in the nation, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. “Taking a principal position is always an amazing challenge and opportunity,” McGill said. “But when I made it to the Met for my first one, I felt enormous pressure.” He described his decade in the world’s most prestigious pit as taxing but rewarding: “It was extremely challenging at first. There were long hours—a really mind-blowing schedule. As I was learning opera, I found I had to listen and play in a different way. You have to be flexible. It was trial by fire! I found it to be fascinating and detailed and difficult, but working under conductors like James Levine made the process a fantastic experience.”
In 2014, McGill made another monumental career move, assuming the post of principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic. He had barely taken up the post when he was asked to perform Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, not only in concert but as part of maestro Alan Gilbert’s series of recordings of the Dane’s complete symphonies and concertos. “It was already on the books,” he recalled, “and I just sort of fell into it!” Not that it had influenced his appointment, but the concerto had long been a favorite of McGill’s, having performed it at Interlochen at the age of 16 after winning its concerto competition. One of the most acclaimed recordings of the work dates from decades ago, by the same orchestra under Leonard Bernstein with Stanley Drucker, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist for nearly 50 years, so it was no small gesture when the New York Times lavished praise on McGill’s performance: “Mr. McGill played with his trademark brilliance, penetrating sound, and rich character. That the ovation was so enthusiastic was no surprise.”
While McGill has devoted most of his energy to orchestral playing, chamber music has also been a passionate pursuit that has included collaborations with a number of superstars in the classical firmament. During a Japanese tour with pianist Michiko Uchida, he had the singular honor of performing Oliver Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with Yo-Yo Ma. Little did he know that years later he would get a call from Ma’s agent asking if he would like to perform at the first inauguration of President Obama. “It was a thrill to be involved in such an unbelievable moment in history,” he said. “I was so proud to be a part of it.”
He has also performed the clarinet quintet repertoire with many of the world’s finest string quartets. Though most of these works are part of the chamber music canon, he has also ventured into newer territory, including the world premiere earlier this year of a quintet by Geoffrey Gordon. He partnered with the JACK Quartet to present the well-received work both in New York and in Ganz Hall at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Another ensemble with ties to McGill is the Grammy Award–winning Pacifica Quartet, with whom he recorded the Mozart and Brahms quintets for Chicago-based Cedille Records last year. “I’ve worked with the quartet numerous times”, said McGill, “and when Jim Ginsburg [the founder of Cedille] approached us about doing this recording, we jumped at the chance.” The Brahms quintet holds a special place in the repertoire for the clarinetist: “It is a masterpiece like no other. It explores the depths of human emotion and tells many different stories. It might just be my favorite work of chamber music.”
McGill’s performance of this seminal work at Ravinia with the Takács Quartet marks his first collaboration with the foursome, as well as his first return to the festival since 2000. “I used to visit Ravinia as a kid to hear some of my favorite musicians,” he recalled. “It always seemed like such a magical place to me, and so different from my neighborhood on the South Side.” No doubt some magical Brahms will be in the air with McGill’s latest homecoming at Ravinia.
Michael Cameron is a double bassist and professor of music at the University of Illinois. His writings have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Classical Review, and Fanfare Magazine.
Tickets for the July 15 performance with Anthony McGill and the Takács String Quartet can be purchased at Ravinia.org