History is revisited there nightly, as iconic classical pieces are brought to life by the revered orchestra. But beyond the music, there’s a different type of history being made there too.
To listen to the New York Philharmonic is to experience the pinnacle of the art form.
CONTINUING COVERAGE: Black History Month
Playing in the middle of it all is 40-year-old Anthony McGill. He holds the prominent position of the Philharmonic’s principal clarinet. He’s the leader of his section, setting the tone, and playing the solos. He’s also the first African-American to do so since it was founded in 1842.
“What does it mean to be the African American principal clarinet at this fine institution?” asked Maurice DuBois.
“It’s amazing,” said McGill. “”That sort of representation does matter. To see people that do what you love to do, that come from places you came from, maybe they look like you, maybe are the same gender as you maybe, all these things we can relate to.”
He found his calling at an early age, following in the footsteps of his older brother Demarre who took up the flute as a child, and today is the principal Flutist of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
“You wanted to be like your big brother,” DuBois said.
“I did. I do,” McGill said.
“Still do,” said DuBois. “What was the attraction?”
“When he was interested in something he would go for it like 150%,” McGill said. “And I saw his drive and his energy… and when we were younger he was really successful.”
But growing up on the south side of Chicago and playing classical clarinet came with some daunting challenges.
“There were people laying into me because I wasn’t on the football team. Like, they were like, why don’t you, come on, this clarinet thing, calling me names,” he said.
But he stayed with it, dedicated to his music. McGill’s early career flourished. and the classical world embraced him.
After playing principal clarinet for the Metropolitan Opera for 10 years, he joined the Philharmonic as principal, in 2014.
“The first performances when I even joined the orchestra, I had to tell myself every morning, I had to look in the mirror and say you are good enough,” McGill said.
“Even at the highest level?” DuBois asked.
“At the highest level especially. There’s that little voice that will try to tell you maybe you don’t belong here. But that’s what I’ve had to do my entire life. Tell myself actually, no, you do deserve this. You know how hard you’ve worked, you know what you’ve done up until this point to get here, do you know what you sacrificed to be here.”
“In my mind it’s probably the greatest moment in all of American history. One of the greatest moments. For me to have the instrument that I started when I was a kid, not knowing where it would take me in my life and to have that instrument and that music take me to that moment.. as a black man growing up on the south side of Chicago and the fact that music helped that journey happen for me,” McGill said.
And the journey is never ending for McGill. DuBois watched a rehearsal for a new composition by Cuban composer Tania Leon as part of the Philharmonic’s Project 19, an initiative highlighting the work of women composers in honor of the ratification of the 19th amendment.
“How did it go from your standpoint?” DuBois asked.
“I’m getting excited,” Leon said.
“I’m glad you got to see what its like,” McGill said. “It’s very raw in its initial form, it’s very raw. That’s what the rehearsal is for.”
A few days later, the performance stirred the soul.
“What was that like for you, African-American man, African-American woman, playing that on the grandest stage in the world,” DuBois asked.
“It was powerful,” McGill said. “You can hear the sound of struggle in this music.”
McGill also sees it as his mission to teach and inspire the next generation. Kyra, 9, has a weekly lesson from McGill. He is the artistic director of Juilliard’s Music Advancement Program, or MAP. It’s designed to serve students from diverse backgrounds who are are underrepresented in classical music.
“I want everyone to be less shy when they play, everyone’s kind of a little tense,” McGill said.
“I think it’s really important that someone of that background represents classical music,” said student Diego Ruis.
“Being a first chair is, like, everyone’s dream,” said student Kevin Kim.
It’s a dream that Anthony McGill embraces.
“It’s beautiful. Just looking at this campus here and thinking about all the art and beautiful music and the history of it, it’s pretty spectacular,” McGill said.
But he also acknowledges, as the lone African-American in the philharmonic, there is a lot of work to do.
“We’re sitting in the library of the Philharmonic, and if you look at those books, I’d go out on a limb here and say there’s not many black faces in there,” DuBois said.
“What we’re trying to bring awareness to and hopefully help change is the fact that we need representation of different peoples, different faces, different voices,” McGill said.
“You’re on that stage… and it sends out a powerful message,” DuBois said.
“There are so many great classical musicians of color and some in orchestras, but the number is way too small. And so what’s the history of that… and then what can we do to change?” McGill asked.