One of the myriad effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Anthony McGill noted in a recent conversation, is that it took the profound musical experiences we are used to having in public and redirected them into the most private spaces — our homes. McGill, who is the New York Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist, spent hours absorbing music in this way. “With the social isolation, a lot of my connection with people came through the computer, through the laptop,” he said by phone from Marlboro, Vt., where he was participating in the Marlboro Music Festival.
Last July, McGill saw a video of two friends of his, violinist Elena Urioste and pianist Tom Poster, playing a new piece by composer Jessie Montgomery, another friend. It was a brief composition titled “Peace,” and despite the affirmative title, the four-minute work, written just a month after the lockdown began, casts an ambivalent spell, its winding melody conveying hope and quiet anguish by turns. Its effect on McGill was immediate.
“It resonated with me in such a powerful, emotional way, like a physical reaction to the music,” he said. “I was like, I need to contact Jessie and I want to play this.” McGill counts her arrangement of the piece for clarinet as a gift whose significance went beyond the artistic realm.
“It’s not just about the music, it’s not just about the notes,” he said. “It’s about a connection, and the power of that connection.”
“Peace” is the opening work on McGill’s sold-out concert with pianist Anna Polonsky on Tuesday at the Newport Music Festival. It’s one of a growing number of performances for small live audiences he has played since coronavirus restrictions have gradually started loosening. Naturally he’s pleased to be able to again experience what he called “the communal aspect” of making music for live audiences. But McGill, who played many virtual concerts during lockdown, also found, after an uncertain start, that they too afforded him an essential way to connect with listeners. That was essential, not only for his audiences, but for his sense of himself as an artist.
“When you’re in a situation where it feels like there may be no hope, you see that actually, people still want to listen,” he said. “People still want to be there with you. And being reminded of that by knowing that there are people that want to hear you play, even if they can’t be in the same room as you, is really powerful.”
Perhaps the most impactful virtual event McGill played was a November performance by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, where he had been associate principal clarinet in the early 2000s. He was the soloist in Anthony Davis’s “You Have the Right to Remain Silent,” a 2011 concerto-like work for clarinet and ensemble. The piece arose from Davis’s experience being stopped in his car on the way to a Boston concert. Wondering whether he should get out and ask the police why he was being stopped, the composer was told by his wife to stay in the car because the officer had his gun pointed at him.
This was sadly familiar territory for McGill, who, like Davis, is Black. Years ago when living in Cincinnati, McGill was pulled over by police one night on the way home from dinner. “The language that was used to me was very derogatory, and very disrespectful, and very threatening,” he remembered. “Fortunately, I had other people in the car, because I know for sure that that night could have gone very differently if I hadn’t had friends there. And I understood clearly that I was lucky to be staying alive, or at least not be in jail for doing, really, nothing.”
Davis’s piece telescopes his experience into a bristling give-and-take between ensemble and clarinet, which is sometimes the object of interrogation by the other instruments and sometimes an eloquent voice of pain. Sung and spoken excerpts from the Miranda warnings are interwoven throughout. The performance, coming during a year of intense social unrest around issues of race, could not have been more timely.
“The thing about a piece like that is how music connects us to experiences that we’ve never had personally, but we feel that the music can communicate something directly to us that makes us think about that experience,” McGill explained. “I think what this piece especially can do is that it allowed me to not only project my own personal experiences with race, and the law, and humanity in America, but also Anthony Davis and his personal experiences with those things. And that’s what human connection and empathy for others is about.”
Toward the end of the CSO concert, McGill was recorded playing “America the Beautiful” in a solo rendition that jarringly shifts from major to minor halfway through. The same piece was at the center of McGill’s “Take Two Knees” video, which he created last May in the wake of the George Floyd murder not only to protest racism but to link that protest to the country’s struggle to live up to the lofty ideals conveyed by the song.
“When the song goes into the minor key,” McGill said, “it’s still the same piece; it’s just that it represents that even though this song is beautiful, and the words say something that is true, we need to continuously make it true, more true for all. That is our job.”
For all those shortcomings, though, and for all the pain endured over the previous year, McGill remains, fundamentally, an optimist. Talking about the major-minor interplay in “America the Beautiful,” he mentioned the idea of the Picardy third, a musical cadence in which a piece predominantly in the minor ends, unexpectedly, in the major.
“That’s what we want,” he said. “We want the Picardy third of our compositions, as humans in America. We’re not always there. We go through evolution, just like a piece of music, and this evolution is what we want. We want progress, and the only way you have progress is if you sometimes have struggle, and you identify what the problems are, and fix those.”
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.