Principal clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic since 2014, Anthony McGill, and pianist Anna Polonsky come together on January 26, 2023, for an exciting program of works by prolific composers such as Lutoslawki, Bernstein, and Gaubert. McGill will also perform The Blue Bag, a piece written for him by composer Adolphus Hailstork.
In 2020, Anthony McGill was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize, one of classical music’s most significant awards in recognition of soloists who represent the highest level of musical excellence. We are thrilled to welcome him and Anna Polonsky to Notre Dame for their Presenting Series debut.
We sat down with Mr. McGill to discuss his artistic journey and the significance of being the first African American to hold a principal position at the New York Philharmonic. Read on to learn more!
You grew up surrounded by art. Was the pursuit of your career actually a choice or was it preordained?
Both of my parents started off as visual artists. My mom was very musical as well because she was also a modern dancer. We always had an art room in the house and that’s the kind of environment we grew up in. Becoming a musician, specifically, was definitely a choice, but one that I don’t think my brother and I knew would find us. My parents definitely wanted to introduce us to music and to the arts, so it was deliberate that we played instruments, but the career is the thing that kind of found us. It found my brother first. He fell in love with music as a child, and then I did too later on. We just happened to both fall in love with music.
What might be the burden as well as the blessing of being the first or the only African American to hold a principal position in the orchestra?
There are always a lot of different ways that you can look at one’s life, one’s successes, and one’s experiences within a field. Even though I am a glass-half-full kind of person, I believe it would be unfair and unwise to not acknowledge the struggles and sacrifices of the people who came before me. It’s important to remember our history and how much people had to sacrifice to be accepted in an orchestra, although maybe not welcome at times.
People like Jerome Ashby and Sanford Allen could have been Principal in any orchestra. But because of when they came along, they were not able to have those positions. I recently learned that the timpanist Elayne Jones was the first Black principal in an orchestra many decades ago. As a young Black clarinet player growing up in Chicago, how come I didn’t learn about these people?
So the concept of being the first is wonderful because I should be, and I am, very proud of the work I’ve done and proud of what I have accomplished. But if you eliminate the “I” from those accomplishments, what you have is the “we” of the people who have come before, who have not only struggled but have sacrificed, so that I may have a more comfortable existence in my success. And I think that it’s very important to focus on them. Because the more they are lifted up and the more I hear about the accomplishments of others before me, the more I can be comfortable in my own existence and continue to strive for greatness, like they all strived for.
How do you think we should go about showing children that life as a musician is something that they can pursue and that it’s worth pursuing?
I love discussing the concept of limiting mindsets or limitless mindsets. Some of the structures that exist in the world make us think that we need to be limited to certain fields, and often those things are structured based on color. I think it’s very important to let young people know that they don’t need to be limited by those things; so letting them know that talent can appear in many different areas of their lives. In my work with the Harmony Program in New York City and with other organizations, I try to look at one thing: are these organizations all about limitless possibilities? Because that’s what I believe in and that’s my mission.
One of the pieces you’re going to play for us is The Blue Bag, by Adolphus Hailstork. Was that a commissioned work or a gift to you?
It was a gift, which is incredible. People have asked me about our relationship, and until very recently, we didn’t have much of one. In my first job with the Cincinnati Symphony, his music was programmed once or twice. Whether or not I knew him, I had a relationship with him. Admiring someone’s work and understanding that you have a connection with it, sometimes because of your community or your culture, is a very important representation and becomes a relationship as a young person.
When I discovered that Adolphus had written a piece for me with my name on the top, I can’t describe how affirming that was. To think that he is the greatest American composer alive today and that he wrote a piece dedicated to me is really special.
We appreciate Anthony McGill’s thoughtful responses and are excited to welcome him and Anna Polonsky to LaBar Recital Hall on Thursday, January 26. Secure your tickets now and come enjoy an evening of exceptional chamber music for clarinet and piano!