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All Things Considered

Classical musician Anthony McGill brings his 'Inaugural' chops back home to Chicago

Anthony McGill (courtesy artist/Katie Smith)

Chicago native and classical clarinetist Anthony McGill comes home this weekend to perform with the Chicago Sinfonietta, at their 25th annual tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This year, the concert coincides with the second Inauguration of President Barack Obama. So it's fitting that McGill is part of the Sinfonietta line-up: After all, he got the gig of a lifetime when he performed at the previous Inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.  

McGill played with an all-star line-up of classical musicians that day: Violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo Yo Ma, and pianist Gabriela  Montero. Together they performed John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts," live on the Capitol steps.

Well, sort of. That January day in Washington was so cold the performers didn't dare risk a live performance - it would have been impossible to stay in tune. So the musicians actually played along to a track they'd recorded earlier.

Still, McGill says the experience was profound. "There was such emotion. I mean Yo Yo plays with more emotion than any player I’ve ever, ever met. To be next to that sort of emotion you feel it. You can actually feel it, like it’s something touching you inside, coming from the sound of an instrument. And this is what you want to do, every time you are performing."

To play at the highest level is something Anthony McGill achieved long before his presidential gig. In classical music circles he’s considered one of the finest clarinetists playing today – as a solo, chamber and symphonic performer.  He’s currently the principal clarinet with the Met in New York.

But his ambitions started much earlier, on his home turf: Chatham, on Chicago’s South Side.

McGill grew up in in a tight-knit, highly creative family.  There he developed a strong case of not so much sibling rivalry, as sibling reverence, for his older brother Demarre.

"I definitely wanted to be like my brother," Anthony McGill said. "I did everything he did. And if he liked it, I liked it. And he loved music, he loved the flute."

Demarre McGill is now principal flute with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. 

That one family gave rise to two classical talents is unusual. Anthony McGill credits a wide network of support. It began with his parents, who appreciated and performed music (Demarre's first flute belonged to his father).

"They were like: 'If you love it, and you want to work hard at it, go for it.' This was not just with music but anything we did," Anthony McGill said.

He also benefited from what he calls "the finest instruction I could have received in Chicago – or maybe anywhere," including David Tuttle at Chicago's Merit School of Music, Stanley Davis (then with the Chicago Lyric Opera, now at the Music Institute of Chicago, and Larry Combs and Julie Deroche (both now at DePaul University).

Even then, McGill's accomplishments are hard won. Only a small percentage of orchestra musicians are African-American – and only a handful hold principal positions like Anthony and Demarre do.

McGill says he thinks things are changing, slowly but surely. It might not always be evident in the orchestra pit. But you can spot it in music schools.

"You have lots of minorities of different types – Hispanics, blacks, Asians – you name it, going through those conservatories," he said. "So what I see is that there is a change happening, of diversity."

Meanwhile, McGill is doing everything he can to step up the pace – mainly by exposing young people to music, through lessons, performances – even how-to videos and musical apps. 

But he isn’t just interested in developing an appreciation for classical repertoire. McGill hopes to support younger musicians in a more profound way, the way his parents supported him.

"It has to come from a deeper place which is a place of connection, and humanity and love. And I think if we focus on that that things will take care of themselves, hopefully. And music will continue."

Anthony McGill performs Aaron Copland's 'Clarinet Concerto' with the Chicago Sinfonietta Sunday in Naperville and Monday in Chicago.

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