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Interview: Anthony McGill

Anthony McGill's resume is as diverse as it is impressive. From Principal Clarinet at the Metropolitan Opera, to his current position in the same spot with the New York Philharmonic, to performing at the inauguration of Barack Obama – not to mention his busy schedule as a soloist and chamber musician. We asked him about his new recording of the Copland Clarinet concerto, the state of diversity in the classical world and the importance of technology in music.

Listen to Anthony and the New York Philharmonic now on Primephonic. 

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What are the big differences between playing as a concerto soloist with the orchestra, instead of from your usual seat in the woodwinds?

It’s really quite different. First of all you’re up there in front and you can actually interact with the audience pretty directly because they see every move you make and every expression you have. We play some solos in the orchestra, but if you play for 20 or 30 minutes in front of the orchestra it’s very different, there’s much more of a spotlight on you. And there’s a lot more pressure frankly to perform, because you are in that position.

With the New York Philharmonic especially, because I know all the musicians so well it does feel like you’re being supported by your team members – the joy of music making with my colleagues is pretty spectacular. Especially with the Copland, they’re just such a great orchestra that it does make you feel like you’re all doing this thing that’s really special together.

The Copland Concerto is so beloved and iconic. It must mean a lot to you, and all clarinet players I suppose.

I’ve basically been playing the piece since I was a child! I started working on it when I was about 12, which is quite young to work on this piece but it was, if not my first concerto, then one of the ones I started learning quite early. So I’ve had a long relationship with the piece.

All great composers are able to use the clarinet in their own way, and this piece is extremely effective – the first opening section is quite lyrical, stunning and expressive, and then when it gets to the jazzy cadenza it’s very American I suppose. Very free. Very idiomatic of lots of different styles of American music: jazz and latin rhythms. It’s a very New York concerto. I think Copland does a great job of using the clarinet in so many different ways within this one work, that you can hear all of the different interesting characteristics of the instrument in the piece.

Where does that American sound Copland is famous for come from?

I don’t want to get too nationalistic about the conversation because that can get complicated, but as a personal attachment to this sort of music, I would say that it comes from this concept that internationally people think of as the big, wild west. A lot of Copland’s music has this kind of cowboy music thing, but along with that is this simple, melodic connection. There are many different ideas that sound can relate to: the concept of struggle and release, persecution and freedom, and all these things come along with the concept of American music. It doesn’t just stand for one tiny little part, it stands for all of the different parts in a melting pot. So when I say that the music reminds me of New York, it is not just from one culture, it’s from the possibility that all of the cultures that can come and live in this free country where ideally everyone is accepted. I think Copland and lots of other composers related to that concept of using many different American cultures in their music.

You were the first African American to fill a principal chair at the New York Philharmonic. What is your view on the state of diversity in American orchestras today, and the classical music industry in general?

As with any sort of progress, you actually can understand how much room for growth there still is in these areas because you’re able to see the discrepancies. For instance with my position, it’s really wonderful to be the first, but then that means that there aren’t in fact many. So I think the issue that classical music has to look at is whether our field is as open as we would like it to be. There’s much more awareness of this as an issue today. Organizations and classical music as a field are becoming much more attuned to figuring out how we can actually help with these issues and become more representative of our society at large. The fact is that there are plenty of people of many different colors and races and religions that perform classical music – but is the orchestral world prepared to really enable them to join the party on stage? That’s something that everyone is confronting right now.

I think that we need to do a better job of diversifying many different aspects of our performances. It used to be that orchestras would do outreach work in certain communities, but I think we also have to look at what our repertoire choices are. Are we doing our part in the private sphere to effect how many kids in diverse communities are getting access to classical music on the educational side? Are we open enough with our audition processes that people of color can join us on stage and be welcomed when they arrive on stage? These are the sorts of things that I think we can think more about and do more positive work towards. Then you also have to look at the environments when you go to a concert – is the staff working at the institution diverse? Are the people who greet you at the hall diverse? Is the back office diverse? You have to look at the whole system, the whole society within classical music and ask if diversity is a priority. Often it is not, and until people think and accept that when we talk about diversity, we’re talking about excellence, and not any of the negative connotations, only then can we actually progress to the point that a field-wide change can happen.

You were the principal clarinet at the Metropolitan Opera for almost 10 years before going over to the New York Philharmonic. I wanted to ask you what the key differences are, in terms of ensemble playing, between the opera house and the concert hall?

Well it’s very interesting, you have so much variety in both the operatic repertoire and the symphonic repertoire, but they are very different endeavors. The opera is a company, so there are many different moving parts. When you’re in the pit orchestra, at times your job is to move with the singers, to accompany, listen and be sensitive. On stage with the Philharmonic, most of the time the orchestral part isn’t accompaniment, but the main focus of attention, so there’s a different approach. Having said that, one of the biggest differences is actually that orchestral concerts are so much shorter than an opera performance –  it’s kind of like a sprint versus a marathon. The pacing is different, and the focus is different when you’re performing in it. But they both have their challenges and their beauties.

What’s your take on the future of classical music, and how technology fits in with that? Do you think that streaming is a good thing for the industry?

I think we’re in an OK place, but there’s definitely work to be done. I think that the concept of Primephonic is excellent, and that refinement and expansion of classical music via technology is a good thing. There’s a delicate balance between being respectful of the music and the music-makers, while at the same time reaching more audiences. Everything always moves forward, and we are at a time when things are consumed via technology more and more. There’s no getting away from that.

Finally, I have to ask: what was it like to perform at the inauguration of Barack Obama?

Frankly, it was a dream that I didn’t know I had come true. It was just out of blue. I’d played some chamber music with Yo-Yo before, and they just called me and asked me to do this. Being from Chicago, being a black American, I had so many different historical and social and personal feelings about this particular moment. Then to be a part of it, and to go down in history as being a part of it, is something that made the moment and made the opportunity that much greater and that much more unbelievable. It’s hard to put into words.