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BSO amplifying ‘Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope’ with March festival

The coming weeks at Symphony Hall will feature music by living American composers that openly confronts racism and gender discrimination.

Clarinetist Anthony McGill, seen here posing in front of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, is the New York Philharmonic's first Black principal musician. He performs the solo in Anthony Davis's "You Have the Right to Remain Silent" in next week's concerts during the BSO's "Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope" festival.Chris Lee

One day 40 and some years ago, pianist and composer Anthony Davis was driving from New Haven to Boston to sit in with jazz saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s namesake trio. Suddenly, police pulled him over to the side of the highway. No one emerged from the police car for several minutes, and Davis’s then-wife turned around to see what was going on. The officer was still in the front seat, and his gun was pointed directly at Davis.

Eventually Davis, who is Black, learned that he’d been stopped because the police “thought that someone meeting my description had just robbed a bank in Hartford,” he said in a phone interview. The police allowed him to leave after 45 minutes, too late for him to make his date with Braxton’s trio.


The terrifying experience has stayed with him ever since. Several decades after the fact, he channeled those memories into his clarinet concerto, “You Have the Right to Remain Silent”— a prominently featured piece in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming festival, “Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope.”

During the three-week event, which runs from this weekend through March 18, the BSO has three concert programs scheduled, stylistically diverse with a major work by a living American composer each week. Two of those pieces are just now receiving BSO performances after pandemic-related cancellations of their initial dates: Philadelphia jazz pianist/composer Uri Caine’s civil rights oratorio “The Passion of Octavius Catto” (March 3-5) and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe’s “Her Story” (March 16-18), a BSO co-commission which was composed in honor of the 100th anniversary of American women receiving the right to vote through the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

The festival coalesced after the orchestra’s administration realized that the rescheduled performances were within two weeks of each other, and the week in between hadn’t been planned yet. “We thought they were important programs that needed to be realized,” said BSO vice president Anthony Fogg in a phone interview. “We thought, why not make up a triptych of programs that would have a particular focus to them?”


It fits the BSO’s mission, he said: “Music is a very powerful tool for revealing common values, starting conversations, even if they’re difficult ones.”

With equal rights as an anchoring theme, and BSO youth and family concerts conductor Thomas Wilkins scheduled to lead the week that was yet to be programmed, “You Have the Right...” became the centerpiece of the festival’s second week. Throughout the festival, the music grapples with loss — of a family member, of a beloved activist, of musical or cultural heritage, or of rights — while looking toward the future. The event also includes a handful of chamber music performances and panel discussions.

Davis said he imagined the clarinet soloist being interrogated by the orchestra while writing “You Have the Right…”, which premiered in 2007. He sees his pieces as works in progress even after they’ve been performed, and frequently revisits them to rewrite and revise; in 2011, he added a third movement in which the musicians recite the Miranda warning.

“The concept of silence [in the piece] is very different than John Cage’s take on silence,” said the composer in a phone interview. “Silence can also be menacing.”

He later incorporated material from the concerto into his opera “The Central Park Five,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2020.


The “You Have the Right…” soloist plays both a standard clarinet and a contra-alto clarinet, a large bass instrument that soloist Anthony McGill described as having “this soulful, really rich, deep spiritual sound.” The score calls for electronic effects from a Kurzweil synthesizer, which will be performed by frequent Davis collaborator Earl Howard; and frequent improvisations from the soloist. “Every performance is totally unique. I don’t know what’s going to happen in each performance,” McGill said. “That makes it really exciting to discover how it shifts concert to concert.”

Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, McGill — the New York Philharmonic’s first Black principal musician — posted a video of himself performing “America the Beautiful” in a minor key and falling to his knees in a twofold protest of racial injustice and the culture of silence around contentious social issues that he noticed in classical music. Several months later, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra music director Louis Langrée engaged McGill (a former member of the symphony) as soloist for a streamed performance of “You Have the Right…”.

It was McGill’s first time performing anything by Davis, and a “coming home kind of moment,” he said. Since then, he’s taken the piece to more major orchestras (New York in 2021; Detroit this coming weekend) with still more performances scheduled in the future.

“Using the clarinet as a voice is something I was talking about a lot during the pandemic,” said McGill. “I was grateful to continue that communication through the instrument and through Anthony Davis’s voice, about issues that are very important.”



March 3-18. Various venues, including Symphony Hall. 617-266-1200,

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her @knitandlisten.