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Finding Anthony

Congratulations to clarinetist and “Citizen Musician”

Anthony McGill, the recently announced winner of the Avery Fisher Prize.

Executive & Artistic Director Joshua Worby

Recalls the Phil’s 2009 Engagement of Anthony McGill


Like everyone else, I watched in awe as our first African-American president, Barack Obama, was sworn into office on January 20th, 2009. My excitement for the event was doubled because I knew that Itzhak Perlman, who at that time was Artistic Director of the Westchester Philharmonic, would perform. I had just spoken with him a day earlier, as we were planning the 2009-10 season that he would lead.


At the Inauguration, Perlman was joined by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and two other young musicians, for a rendition of John Williams’ Air and Simple Gifts, which beautifully entwines Aaron Copland’s Shaker-inspired melody. (Watch that performance here: I watched with special pride as Perlman and Ma opened the work. Then one of those “other musicians” entered. It was Anthony McGill on clarinet. My heart stopped. I had never heard, or heard of, Anthony McGill, but his playing was unmistakably brilliant, his sound as pure as I had ever heard.


Early that same evening, I texted Perlman, still referencing our planning for the following season: “Anthony McGill, Mozart, November?” By now Perlman was at the Inaugural Ball when my text arrived. He had played for kings and queens and heads of state more times than I have had a burger and fries, so while sitting at this once-in-a-lifetime black tie event, naturally he was fiddling with his Blackberry on his lap. The reply came quickly: “Yes! Hurry.”


We both knew what “hurry” meant. McGill’s appearance at the inauguration that day would make him very popular very quickly.


I immediately began looking online for McGill’s management. He didn’t have any. I looked for his website. He didn’t have one. I looked in online telephone directories, which I knew was stupid but I was desperate. I sent emails and made phone calls to multiple artist rep firms, in case they knew how to find Anthony. More than one responded with “I don’t know who reps him, but if you do track him down, give him my number.”


McGill had just accepted the principal clarinet position at the Met Opera. I called the Met and left a message with their orchestra manager, with an urgent request for McGill to call me. I didn’t hear back – maybe my “urgency” was suspicious. I knew that some of our musicians, who are regular members of the New York City Ballet orchestra, would sometimes sub at the Met. I made more calls and learned that one of our violinists had a bassoonist friend who was in fact going to sub at the Met that next night. I wrote a note, on paper, and drove it over to the violinist, with instructions that he pass the note to the bassoonist while they were both in the ballet pit that night, and to instruct the bassoonist to pass the note to McGill when they were both in the opera pit that next night. Like I said, I was desperate.


Shockingly, it worked. Anthony called me the day after that. Our November date was open for him, and he was thrilled at the prospect of performing the Mozart with us, with Perlman on the podium.


The New York Times noted the upcoming engagement:


The second movement Adagio from the Mozart Clarinet Concerto is regarded as among the most achingly beautiful pieces of music ever written. A simple melody that rises and falls is underpinned by an orchestral accompaniment that mostly agrees with the pastoral beauty of the moment, but still injects a worrisome tension, while the clarinet melody falls, the middle strings rise, and the seeming simplicity is no such thing. Mozart wrote a lullaby that startles you into tears. The Westchester Philharmonic has performed this work for schoolchildren who, without knowing why, become transfixed.


Our concert weekend was upon us. Anthony and I spent the two previous days driving to several elementary and middle schools, where he played and demonstrated his instrument for kids sitting on a gym floor, and led a master class for some older kids. Our little two-day road trip had a packed schedule, so lunch consisted of munching down sandwiches in the car. We had a blast and the kids and teachers we saw were smitten.


Concert time. November 21, 2009. Westchester Philharmonic. Itzhak Perlman, conducting; Anthony McGill, clarinet; Mozart Clarinet Concerto: I. Allegro; II. Adagio; III. Rondo: Allegro


Ah, but the Rondo: Allegro nearly didn’t happen. McGill’s Adagio destroyed the room. When it ended, the audience didn’t rustle and shift as usual between movements. There was a stark silence, then audible sighs and sniffles. From backstage I could see Perlman’s face, completely spent, in tears. The musicians in the orchestra were similarly blotto. The typical 10 or 15 seconds between movements lasted for over a minute. It took that long for everyone to collect themselves.


But move on they did. At the triumphant conclusion of the third movement, the audience spontaneously stood and cheered. McGill bowed, then kissed Perlman on the cheek. Our souls had been kissed by the music he made.


I once passed a note to a girl when we were in seventh grade. She crumpled it up. I’m glad I tried it again with McGill.


Congratulations, Anthony, on winning the Avery Fisher Prize, and thank you for lifting all of us to higher ground when you #TakeTwoKnees. 

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