When a performer’s name is in the title of a symphony’s concert, it is not surprising that their performance ends up as the evening’s most memorable highlight. That was certainly the case with Music of the Baroque’s McGill Plays Mozart, presented Monday (February 28) at Chicago’s Harris Theater and the night before at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
It was a homecoming for clarinetist Anthony McGill, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side and learned his craft with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and at the Merit School of Music. His status as the principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic would, in any case, earn him the spotlight in a performance of the Concerto for Clarinet in A Major, K. 622, one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s most beloved works.
The fact that McGill is one of the brightest stars in the too-small constellation of Black performers with major U.S. orchestras has made him a reference point in the discussion of classical music’s need to promote greater diversity and equity. He is not only principal clarinetist but is the first black principal on any instrument in the New York Philharmonic’s history; his brother Demarre is principal flutist with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
How McGill was able to break through the historic underrepresentation of Black performers was part of a video discussion he had with Dame Jane Glover, Music of the Baroque’s music director, and Declan McGovern, the ensemble’s executive director. McGill said he was very fortunate to have had his talents fostered by the Merit School, which has provided tuition-free, music-focused education for generations of students who lacked personal wealth.
“Without an organization like that, that really, before it was popular, believed in diversity and inclusion and equity, I wouldn’t be here today,” McGill said. He added that, in order to encourage young people of color to pursue opportunities in classical music, it is “very, very necessary” for that community “to actually, sincerely understand the value of everyone having the opportunity to see someone who looks like them or someone who thinks like them or loves like them up on the stage.”
At the concert itself, this facet of McGill’s career was referenced only indirectly, with McGovern commenting that Music of the Baroque had invited four young musicians to participate with the orchestra under the Project Inclusion originated by Chicago Sinfonietta. Instead, McGill took the stage and let his immense talent speak for itself.
The clarinet was new when Mozart wrote his Concerto in the late 18th century, but his grasp was immediate, producing a piece that is both challenging and touching. McGill handled the rapid-fire fingering of the opening Allegro movement, swinging into some passages with bent knees. He then wrung the emotional resonance from the Adagio movement, regarded by some musicologists as the most beautiful passage ever written, and one that Glover said during the video conversation “can both break your heart and bring you the greatest joy.”
After his fingers flew through the lively closing Rondo movement, McGill received a long, well-earned standing ovation and a chorus of “Bravo” from the audience.
The other parts of the program, which flanked the Clarinet Concerto, highlight perhaps the two most remarkable periods in Mozart’s all-too-brief life. The concert opened with the overture to Lucio Silla, an opera that Mozart composed when he was 15 years old. Much has been made about Mozart’s prodigious youth, which included 30 numbered symphonies (and numerous other compositions) by the time he turned 21.
Yet is it at least equally remarkable that several of Mozart’s most brilliant pieces — including his Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, which closed Music of the Baroque’s concert — were written toward the end of his life, when he suffered from severe financial distress and (according to some histories) bouts of ill health.
Mozart’s intent in Symphony No. 40 has been the subject of debate across the centuries. The minor key certainly elicits melancholy moods, and the strings attack the atypically feverish Menuetto in the 3rd movement; this has prompted some musicologists to describe the piece as representing Mozart’s despair over his life’s predicaments. Yet others focus on the enveloping beauty of one of the master’s most recognizable compositions.
Music of the Baroque returns with “Classical Heroines,” featuring Amanda Forsythe, a light lyric soprano who specializes in the Baroque era. The concerts will take place on March 20 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets priced $35-$95 can be purchased here—and on March 21 at the Harris Theater, where tickets priced $25-$95 can be purchased here.
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