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Classical IPR in conversation with clarinetist Anthony McGill

David Finlayson

For Anthony McGill, it wasn't always easy being known as "Demarre's Little Brother" when they were teenagers in their youth orchestra.

Now the brothers are all grown up. Anthony McGill is the principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. His brother Demarre McGill is the principal flute of the Seattle Symphony. 

The McGills have just released their second album together. It includes two pieces commissioned specifically for them. 

Anthony McGill spoke with Classical IPR about the new album. He discussed what it was like going back to play with "his" youth orchestra, the Chicago Youth Symphony, for the album. 

Listen to the entire interview, including excerpts from the two world premiere performances, below.

An edited transcript of the interview appears below the audio.

Music included

Michael Abels, "Winged Creatures"

Joel Puckett, "The Great American Scream Machine"

Anthony McGill on recording with his brother Demarre

We’ve always played together since we were kids, and so when we first got the opportunity to start [recording together], we jumped at the chance. We've performed together many times, but to be able to put something down on a recording is really special because you don't get that many opportunities to do so professionally, especially with a great label like Cedille Records.

A couple of the pieces on this newest recording [the Sinfonia Concertante by Franz Danzi and the Tarantella by Camille Saint-Saens], we’ve been performing together since we were teenagers. Over the last 20 or 25 years, we’ve played them with piano, and we’ve played them with orchestra. It’s really great to be able to record them – and to perform them with our own youth orchestra [the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra].

On playing with “his” youth symphony orchestra again as an adult

It’s really amazing to go back and play with the Chicago Youth Symphony. I'm thinking that I shouldn't be much older than these kids, but I am [laughs]. It’s literally been 25 years or something.

They sound so great, and to be able to think that I had my early training and orchestra playing with this group is pretty spectacular. It’s a really special thing for us to go back together and play with the orchestra.

My brother [Demarre] was four years older than me, so [when I joined the orchestra] he was kind of on his way out – graduating and going to Curtis [Institute of Music], and I was the young kid on the block. I was basically “Demarre’s Little Brother” – that was my name at the time [laughs]. But I got to perform with my brother in that orchestra when I was very young. We got to go on a tour of Japan, and we got to play Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony together.

[Now] it's pretty cool to be up there and think about all those years ago when I barely knew how to play the clarinet. We got to play such great things. Those early years are so important for musical growth and for learning to love music. That's [the age] where you either you fall in love with music or decide you don't want to do this.

Anthony and Demarre McGill

On the piece “Winged Creatures” by Michael Abels

This work was commissioned by Cedille Records. Jim [James Ginsburg, President of Cedille] mentioned Michael Abels. We like his music, and he had written a piece for my brother and I many years before, like when we were 15 or 16, called “Sibling Rivalry.” We were like, this is this would be a great idea - let's see if he's willing to do it, because he's really busy. And so he did.

It's really beautiful. He describes a butterfly flying in the air, and he uses the instruments in such an active, beautiful, energetic way. It’s just really gorgeous - the sonorities and the harmonies that he uses, the textures that he gets with the orchestra. He uses the instruments back and forth, like wings flying through the air - like one time, the flute [played by Demarre McGill] is taking over a melody and then the next time I [the clarinetist] kind of fly in and take over the melody.

On Joel Puckett’s Concerto Duo

This piece starts off with a tribute to kind of rollercoasters and America - this loud, crashing thing. You think about your childhood, you think about going to amusement parks and being excited by that. It’s really exciting, like a lot of crashing sounds and then kind of rock music beats and exciting, fast, high stuff with the flute and clarinet.

The first movement [“The Great American Scream Machine”] has screams - you can actually hear the loud, high voices in the flute and clarinet. But there's some relaxation in it as well. There are fast rhythms and the exciting textures in the orchestra, and there are very fast technical licks in the flute and clarinet that are going back and forth with each other - sometimes fighting with each other but coming together in the end.

The other movements are quiet, tender lullabies. Joel [Puckett] wrote the piece thinking about family and thinking about some of the traditions that his family had and some of the lullabies that that he's passed on from his grandmother to his children.

There are different moments [in this piece] where you go for this wild and crazy ride, which is kind of what it's like having a young child or being a young child [laughs]. And then there are these poignant moments where you're trying to get someone to sleep, and then it gets exciting and wild and crazy again.

On what’s coming up next for him and his brother

We’ll be premiering a new piece in December by Tyshawn Sorey. That’s our trio - the McGill-McHale Trio with pianist Michael McHale. We have a couple other projects in the works with composers over the next year or so - we'll be introducing some new works to the repertoire and working with new composers.

I've been appointed the artistic director of the Music Advancement Program at Juilliard.  It’s a Saturday preparatory program in New York reaching underserved communities. I'm really excited to do – it’s kind of going back to my Chicago roots because I started a similar Saturday program [there], and now we’re going to be doing that at Juilliard. 

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.