Classical Album of the Week: The McGill Brothers, Chicago Youth Symphony Present Winged Creatures

Nov 11, 2019

November 11, 2019.  It's a classical recording that celebrates family, and the importance of music in children's lives.  Our Classical Album of the Week is Winged Creatures, featuring Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of The New York Philharmonic, and his brother, Demarre McGill, principal flutist of The Seattle Symphony, performing with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, which nurtured both brothers in their early years. 

The McGill brothers grew up in Chicago, and both played in the Chicago Youth Symphony, which commissioned Joel Puckett's Concerto Duo in 2012, also featured on the album.  The title track, Winged Creatures—by African American composer Michael Abels—was commissioned by Cedille Records. The album is the world-premiere recording of both of these works for flute, clarinet, and orchestra.

Franz Danzi's Sinfonia Concertante for Flute, Clarinet and Orchestra is also on the recording, along with Saint-Saens' Tarantelle, a piece the McGill brothers, while still in their teens, performed on  Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. 

WRTI's Susan Lewis had the chance to talk with Anthony McGill about the album, family, and the role music has played in his life. Here's an edited transcript: 

Congratulations on this new album, Winged Creatures.

Thanks. 

It's a beautiful, joyful, and I take it, very personal album for you.

It is in many ways.

You're now principal clarinet with New York Philharmonic and your brother's principal flute with Seattle.  So I guess maybe you don't get a chance to play together that much anymore.

Not super often, but a few times a year now, which is great.

Did you play together as kids?

Yeah, we played alot together as kids. I mean, he's older, so when I first  started playing, we weren't doing very much together.  He's four years older, so when I got to an age where I could actually play stuff, we were playing a lot together.

Did his choice of instrument influence yours growing up?

Oh definitely. I think just focusing on the wind instrument for sure happened because he played the flute.  I definitely wanted to play saxophone first, and  I ended up with the clarinet, but he totally influenced almost everything about my musical start.

I understand you were on [the TV show]  Mr. Rogers'Neighborhood together in 1994, when you would have been about 14?

I was really young and that was an awesome experience. And we can still watch the video of it actually.

And you actually played one of the pieces that's on this CD.

Exactly. We played the Saint-Saens' Tarantelle on Mr. Rogers. We had to do a little bit of play acting -- acting like we were preparing for a concert that didn't really exist. [laughter] But we played that piece a lot when we were younger.

How did that all come about?

My brother was at The Curtis Institute of Music at the time and a colleague of his was friends with Fred Rogers. [Allan Morrison] was an organist at the school and Fred Rogers was also a pianist and organist.  I guess somehow he told Fred Rogers about my brother and I and [Mr. Rogers said] "Let's get them on the show. It will be cool to have two young brothers playing with you."

So we did that piece, the Saint-Saens, talked about what it's like to play, and talked about our uniforms because we were wearing tuxedos for the concert that we were preparing for. It was a week of "uniforms for your job." 

Wow, that's cool. So this is your second album together.  What was the process when Michael Abels was writing Winged Creatures? I understand he was thinking of you two, and he was also thinking about music that reminded him of the flight of a butterfly.  Were you involved in the composition process at all?

We weren't involved, especially not at the very beginning.  We got the score a few months before having to record it and had some time to spend listening to a little bit of an electronic mock-up of it.

But we prefer to let the composer do the work, before we do the work of performing and interpreting. And fortunately we've been lucky to work with composers like Michael who have their own concepts. they can hear us play, they can do their own research about who we are and where we're from and how we play without ever having a conversation about it. And in a way it gives the composer freedom to do whatever they want.

Are there any particular parts of any of these pieces that illustrate some of the things they show? The range of the instruments or how they relate to one another?

I'll talk about Concerto Duo first. Joel Puckett's piece, the way he uses the solo instruments just by themselves in the work is really great. And actually I would say that about  Michael Abel's [Winged Creatures] as well.

There are moments where you hear the flute and clarinet working together, and it's a very touching thing because you know we are brothers and you hear us communicating with each other in both of these pieces at different times.  Also both composers use the orchestra to envelope that sound at times but also let the sound come through. So just that ability to have this kind of competition, if you will, between the two instruments, and then between the orchestra, against the orchestra, within the orchestra, that sound is really rich.

And I think both pieces have these moments of great beauty and great passion and meaning that you can hear. Especially with the whole 'coming home' thing with The Chicago Youth Symphony and the family bond that [my brother and I] have, the pieces are very emotionally charged at times and also beautifully free and energetic. 

Also, [I understand with] the Concerto Duo, each movement is dedicated to a particular child or an experience.

It's really great. In the Concerto Duo,  there's a lullaby that Joel listened to. I think his grandmother sang to him and then he passed it on to sing to his daughter. And so it's a gift, you know, music used as a gift. In a way, the piece is a gift to us and our youth orchestra as well. And I think you can hear that in the music.

It's a really nice thing when composers write for my brother and I, they understand the familial connection, and the pieces feel like real gifts to us.

[Also with respect to the listener] they're very generous pieces of music with beautiful melodies and complex things as well. Sometimes with newer music, people expect one thing or another. But these composers - they used the voices and use their skills to not be afraid to challenge the listener and not be afraid to also give the listener a gift of beautiful melody and beautiful sonority. 

Well, speaking of the youth symphony, what did that experience give you when you were growing up as members of the Chicago Youth Symphony?

I think the moment in my life when I realized, okay, I think I want to do this, was when I was playing with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and I was probably like 12 or 13 when I joined the orchestra. So I was quite young. It was an amazing experience because for me, playing in that orchestra was basically like playing in a professional orchestra.

I didn't know what that entailed, but the quality of the playing and the intensity and the fun and everything, it felt real and it felt serious and it felt quite similar to what I'm doing now. Because I'm obviously physically doing the same thing, playing the clarinet and in an orchestra for a living.

But as a kid, this being one of my early experiences playing in any orchestra, I couldn't have imagined something greater. We went on a couple international tours. It was a very special orchestra. I think I was very lucky.   

I'm not sure at the time if I knew how lucky I was, but I'm really grateful now because those experiences were really important in my growth as a musician, but also impacted me; the amount of love I had for playing music and for eventually becoming a professional musician. It was great.

So what's been the role of music in your life?

Well, music has a very interesting role in my life because it has been my life since I was nine years old. So I would say that it is probably something that I just am, that it's become a part of who I am. And it's been that way for a really long time. I can't really remember very much before the time I played music, if that makes any sense.

Sure.

Even though I was nine years old, I had lots of experience before that, in a way life begins there and after for me.  Because it is such a part of my actual voice in the world and how I think of myself and how I communicate with the world that it is pretty much everything.

It is love to me. It is energy. It is beauty. It's all those things that I would try to strive to be in the world. That's what music is. I would try to do all of those things.

It's the thing I strive for, in addition to having it a part of my life. I strive to be a better communicator, like I try to do on the clarinet -- with my words. But on the clarinet,  I think I feel much more comfortable communicating than anywhere else. 

So what's it been like working with the Chicago Youth Symphony now? What kind of message do you want to give these young musicians?

I think the message that I often share with younger musicians in general is that I am you. 

When I talk to younger musicians, whether they're college age or high school or younger, is that  love of music is something that I think one can carry with them, even if you don't become a musician.

So the work that they put in, the passion that they do it with, the skill that they acquire, will change their lives.

So it's really inspiring to go back and hear this orchestra that sounds so amazing and think, oh, I was that young, and I was in a group like this.    

I always try to impart to them that they should really appreciate what it is that they're doing because it'll stay with them for the rest of their lives.

It's inspiring for me and I always tell them they inspire me. I mean, when I was with the Youth Orchestra,   they sounded so good and you hear this recording and you almost can't believe that it's a group of high schoolers playing at this super high professional level. Most of them, it's their first professional recording that they're doing.

Does [this album] have a message, musically or otherwise?

I think the message of this album would be:  family, communication and connection, and these things in this music you can hear, and love, frankly.  There's so much energy, there's so much positivity in the sounds that you'll hear on the album that you can connect with all of those things:  communication and family and love and I think that's what I think makes it really a unique kind of project.

Well, it's been so nice to talk to you. Congratulations again.

Thanks a lot. Thanks so much.