Passionate About Music

Allegro interviews Anthony McGill

Volume 114, No. 10October, 2014

Anthony McGill

Anthony McGill

From early lessons in Chicago to a top career in New York City, Anthony McGill has kept his focus, his drive and his energy.

Anthony McGill is one of the classical music world’s finest solo, chamber and orchestral musicians, and he has a resume to prove it. Last month, McGill began his tenure as principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. Previous to that, he served as principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for 10 years. All that, and he’s just 35!

A member of Local 802 since 2005, McGill has appeared as soloist and chamber musician all over the world. He’s collaborated with Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman, Gil Shaham, Midori, Mitsuko Uchida and Lang Lang, and on Jan. 20, 2009, performed with Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Gabriela Montero at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama.

In demand as a teacher, McGill serves on the faculty of Juilliard, Peabody, Bard College and the Manhattan School of Music. He has given master classes throughout the United States, Europe and South Africa.

Anthony McGill recently sat down with Local 802’s Bob Pawlo and Karen Fisher to give his views on auditioning, playing with passion and his loving bond with his brother Demarre, who serves as principal flutist with the Dallas Symphony.

Allegro: What are your first memories of music?

Anthony McGill: I remember that my parents listened to different types of music all the time in the house and my mom used to sing along. Eventually, my brother Demarre started playing flute. He was really gifted, and I listened to him practice all the time. Then when I got to fourth grade, the music teacher had all these instruments laid out on a table to choose from. I wanted to play the saxophone but they said it was too big for me, so they showed me the clarinet. They said I could always switch and play the sax later, and that’s how I got started. We lived on the south side of Chicago and my parents were really supportive. I started going to Merit School of Music, which is a grassroots program that educates thousands of kids in Chicago. I played my first recital there. We had private lessons, theory classes and ear training. It was a great place to go. It was basically like a little conservatory. And, at the time, it was free!

After studying with David Tuttle at Merit, I was introduced to Larry Combs, who was the principal clarinetist at the Chicago Symphony. I was 12 years old, and had to audition for him. He didn’t teach very many young kids at that point but he taught me for a couple years. I also got to study with Julie DeRoche at DePaul University. Also around this time, I won a seat in the Chicago Youth Symphony. I was one of the youngest members and even went on tour with them. My brother was also in the symphony with me. I was the little brother following in my brother’s footsteps.

Allegro: Did you and your brother have a friendly rivalry? Did your relationship with your brother as an accomplished young musician affect you?

Anthony McGill: Yes, I saw him doing really well in competitions and working really hard and I think I saw how great he was. He was getting so many accolades. Everyone would ask me if I was following in my brother’s footsteps. I wasn’t competitive with him, but my brother supported me and pushed me. He saw that I had talent and so I think there was definitely a healthy kind of motivating factor there. It kind of pushed me to work even harder because I was four years younger. He was really helpful at the time and still is; he’s great!

Allegro: When did you know that you were going to be a professional musician?

Anthony McGill: When I was very young I wanted to be all kinds of different things, like a lawyer or a businessman. I was kind of a nerdy kid and I always did well in school and so I had all these other interests, but somehow music really got a hold of me at a very young age. When I won scholarships to go to Interlochen during the summers of 1991 and 1993, I just fell in love with the place. I loved the people there and all of my experiences. I loved being accepted by my fellow musicians. Music became my world. My brother had inspired me, but I also fell in love with music on my own. No one forced me to do it, and my parents went along with it. They said if you love it, do it. From then on, I never wanted to do anything else. Basically, music got me!

Allegro: What skills and concepts did Larry Combs stress with you in your lessons?

Anthony McGill: Larry talked to me a lot about sound and tone production. Julie DeRoche worked with me a lot on scales and David Tuttle also had me playing a lot of scales very early on and was very strict with that. I was very lucky because the instruction I got was so fundamental. I practiced regularly and liked it a lot.

Allegro: How did the rest of your early training go?

Anthony McGill: I attended Interlochen in my sophomore and junior years, graduated one year early and then went to Curtis. After Curtis, I auditioned for the Cincinnati Symphony and I won the associate principal clarinet chair. Four years later, I auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera position and moved to New York in 2004.

Allegro: So you’ve never failed an audition?

Anthony McGill: That’s funny, but it’s definitely not true! When I was young, I once had to play the Weber Concertino as an audition piece, and I had to do it from memory. I lost the audition. My parents were backstage consoling me and the conductor came back and saw how distraught I was. I think I was crying. He said you didn’t win but you played really beautifully and with a lot of musicality beyond your years. He also said that losing auditions is just going to happen but you have to lift your head up and know people can still enjoy your playing: you don’t have to win all the time. I was really encouraged by that, to go for things even if there was a possibility of me losing. I learned that lesson early on. I auditioned for a few different orchestras while I was at Curtis before I was old enough to really be auditioning, but that never stopped me. I auditioned for the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, London. I actually auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra for their principal position when I was in college. I didn’t win that, and it was an experience that taught me how to fail but also how to succeed. Sometimes it’s not about the results. It’s about trying, just showing up, practicing, getting better and learning from the experience. It’s true that I’m not one of those people who auditioned for 50 orchestras and then won one job, but I have had failures along the way for sure. And there are auditions I took since I’ve been a professional that I didn’t get.

Allegro: What’s your best advice for musicians to prepare for auditions?

Anthony McGill: I like to read books about psychology, auditions and job interviews. I like books about the “inner game,” like the inner game of music or even the inner game of tennis. I like the performance coach Don Greene. I also like doing mock auditions and playing for people and simulating the actual auditions, especially because I’ve never considered myself a very good auditioner in general. I think that orchestra auditions are very specific. They’re very challenging in their unique quality.

Allegro: Would you audition the same way for New York as you would for Chicago or Los Angeles?

Anthony McGill: I don’t change my playing too much and sometimes that may have hurt me. But I think there are too many different things to think about to try to do that. I do try to listen to the orchestra beforehand and listen to their recordings specifically. I did that with the Met, I did it with Cincinnati, I did it with the Philharmonic, but I didn’t always win the job the first time I auditioned. Sometimes it took a few times trying. I never gave up. I have auditioned for many orchestras numerous times. Maybe during this process, I did adjust my interpretation to fit the orchestra. If you’re able to get comments from orchestra players who listened to your audition, it’s always helpful to know what they were looking for and I think that does help. It is very important to know how they want you to fit into their sound, whatever they’re looking for. But I don’t change how I play; I don’t change my style.

Allegro: Which clarinetists and others have influenced you the most?

Anthony McGill: That’s a tough question because I don’t want to leave anybody out. But I’ve listened to a lot of different players. I’m influenced by all of my teachers: Donald Montanaro, Richard Hawkins, Larry Combs. I also listen to people whose sounds and styles are different than mine. I’ve listened to different singers and string players throughout the years, and at Interlochen we would stay up late listening to all the different clarinetists and trying to imitate their sound. We would listen to the great string players, and the great pianists of the day. Basically I just love music and I try to hear everybody and hear what they’re doing. I admire musicians where you can hear their expression, you can hear what’s inside, you can hear their energy being transferred, and I like that. That’s what I try to do.

Allegro: Could you share with us your experience of playing for President Obama’s first inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009?

Anthony McGill: That was a highlight of my life, just to be there for that moment in history. It was an honor, it was life changing, and it was something I never expected to be a part of. It was also really cold! I think what was going through my mind was that I’ll never forget this. I’ll never forget that this happened and that I’m on this stage with some of the greatest musicians who ever lived: YoYo Ma, Itzak Perlman and Gabriel Montero. I was sitting there freezing for an hour and a half before our music started, but it was the most amazing place to be on earth for me that day.

Allegro: What was it like to perform Joel Puckett’s “Concerto Duo” for flute and clarinet with your brother Demarre?

Anthony McGill: Joel wrote this for us and the Chicago Youth Symphony and it was an amazing thing to go back to Symphony Center in Chicago and play this with our old youth orchestra. It was a thrilling, beautiful piece. Joel’s a great composer. Just being able to play with my brother is always very exciting because I still feel like a little brother when we play together. I want him to be impressed and I want to play well when I’m next to him. When you look at the video of it, we have similar movements when we play and I guess I probably got a lot of those from watching him because he always has such charisma when he plays. It’s just a perfect kind of energy. We play well together, we produce similar energies in our sounds and our expressions. It was a thrill.

Allegro: What was your experience the first night you performed as principal clarinetist of the Met Opera?

Anthony McGill: It was really awesome. It felt great. The orchestra rehearses a lot, so I had had time to adjust and settle in a little bit. You look up from that pit and see all those faces and it’s pretty amazing. We think we’re in a deep pit but we can see everything, we can see everyone in the house except for the orchestra level. You look up and see all those rows and the 3,800-seat house. It’s pretty grand and beautiful. My first night, I probably wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was actually playing with the Metropolitan Opera. When you focus on playing the music, you’re trying not to think about the external factors like, “OMG, this is the Met Opera!”

Allegro: What have been some of your highlights of playing at the Met?

Anthony McGill: Getting to work with James Levine on a regular basis was absolutely amazing, because I think he’s a genius. And the orchestra sounds so amazing when playing under him, so our concerts at Carnegie Hall were great and the chamber concerts we did with him were wonderful. I also enjoyed playing under Riccardo Muti and Daniel Barenboim.

Allegro: I’ve heard that playing at a top opera like the Met changes your musicality and the way you play because you’re hearing all these great singers. A lot of instrumenalists feel like they start playing much more vocally.

Anthony McGill: Yes, I think so. It’s just so fulfilling to hear those beautiful voices. And when you’re listening to beautiful voices all the time, you can’t help but be emotionally invested and stimulated. It is the most emotional music ever, because the human voice taps into the thing that is central to our heart and our expressions as instrumentalists. It becomes a part of you, that kind of singing quality. You hear a voice, but you also hear a story line, you hear a character, you hear expression. As an instrumentalist, you end up creating your own story and shape to your line. I think our playing as opera musicians becomes very specific and vocal in its expression.

Allegro: All those years ago when your parents were so patient with you and your brother and driving you to rehearsals, did they ever imagine their oldest son would be the principal flute of the Dallas Symphony and their younger son the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic?

Anthony McGill: They are obviously thrilled and proud. We are forever grateful to them, to allow us to become who we have become. I can’t tell you enough how much they influenced us and supported us along the way.

Allegro: What are you looking forward to with the New York Philharmonic? How are you preparing to do the season as principal clarinet and preparing the Nielsen Concerto in January?

Anthony McGill: I am so excited to be joining the Philharmonic. Basically a lot of the preparation I’m doing is mental. I’m actually going to be doing something not totally different from the Met, because I’m still going to have a clarinet in my hands! But the music and repertoire is really great and a lot of the repertoire is the repertoire I grew up training on and playing from the time I was in youth orchestra and on up. I love the symphonic repertoire. This summer I’ll be listening to all the pieces. That’s really what you need to do before you join any new orchestra, is have the music in your ear and your heart. Opera has great clarinet solos. In symphonic, there’s great variety. There are composers who I’m going to get to play more of. At the Met, we didn’t get to play very much Bartok or Mahler. So I’m really looking forward to all of that, and the Nielsen of course. The last time I played the Nielsen clarinet concerto was with the Interlochen orchestra in high school.

Allegro: What message or advice would you give to young clarinetists starting their careers in today’s world?

Anthony McGill: You must love your music a lot in order to work as hard as you need to. So listen with passion, practice with passion and energy, and put everything into it. It’s not the external things that matter; it’s the things that are inside of your heart that matter. If you want the goal, if you want the outcome, you have to really be passionate about it, really love it and work really hard at it.