The University of Chicago Presents continues at the forefront of classical music here in Chicago during the pandemic. While venues remain closed to live audiences, UCP has kept its audiences engaged with top-quality online streaming concerts. Last week they joined with several other organizations including the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, to provide a free online concert by Anthony McGill.
McGill is a Chicago South Side native, a graduate of the Curtis School of Music, and the principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic (that orchestra’s first African-American principal player). He serves on the faculty of the Juilliard School, the Curtis Institute of Music, and Bard College’s Conservatory of Music. McGill performed at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, premiering a piece written for the occasion by John Williams and performed alongside violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Gabriela Montero.
Last Friday he joined one of his frequent collaborators, Anna Polonsky (a friend since he was 11 years old) for a beautifully constructed concert of music for clarinet and piano. Their concert consisted of music from the Americas, with pieces by Florence Price, Leonard Bernstein, James Lee III, and Carlos Guastavino.
Florence Price (1887–1953) was a composer, pianist, organist, and teacher who spent the last part of her life in Chicago. (There was public school named after her here on the South Side, but it has been decommissioned.) Her Symphony No. 1 in E minor was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933, making it the first composition by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra.
McGill took on Price’s “Adoration” in his own arrangement. The music was quiet and relaxed and full of hope. McGill’s clarinet was languid and beautifully elastic. Polonsky contributed glorious kitten-like softness at the keyboard.
Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano was that composer’s first published piece (1942) and was dedicated to David Oppenheim. The first movement, marked “grazioso,” was given clear, clean lines by McGill with even the most rapid passages given velvet smoothness. Glittering, chatty chords swirled from the piano.
The second and final movement, “andantino,” featured expert work by the pair who navigated the shifting meters, sly syncopation, and rapid lines with great virtuosity, taking joy in the jazz-inflected melodies. The little duets contained in this movement were enchanting.
Next up was James Lee, III’s 2015 work “Ad Anah,” meaning “How Long?”. McGill offered only a brief introduction, but made clear that he likes the composer, a man he knows, and is very fond of the work. It showed. The performance was first rate, opening with gorgeous liquid piano work from Polonsky. She drew out all the ripples and splashes in gentle fashion. McGill’s clarinet work was fascinating, from the ornamental-like gestures to the powerful declarations.
The second movement found McGill sometimes offering anguished sound interposed with difficult rapid runs. The piano echoes were appropriately more subdued. It was gripping music, beautifully performed.
The concert closed with the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Carlos Guastavino. McGill noted in his spoken comments how the piece has gotten under his skin, calling it “a cherished work in my mind” and compared its sound to that of Rachmaninoff.
In the “Allegro deciso” McGill showed his confidence in the music, whether bold or subdued, embracing its power and wonder. Both players had superb softness in the quiet sections, never letting the captivating melodies completely disappear.
The “Andante” was bursting with romantic drama, and the duo drew out all the interesting details.
The final movement, marked “Rondo, Allegro spiritoso,” featured both excitement and playfulness. The music was infused with not just bounce, but purpose. McGill’s phrasing was exuberant and he knew just how to frame the shifting moods, whether the music was dreamy or bellowing. It ended with big conclusion that found the pair ending the concert on a high.
The music was splendid, but there was more to like. The camera work was expertly done. While there were a limited number of cameras, they were deftly placed so that we could see McGill straight-on as well as from the side. In the latter case, we were given a great view of Polonsky’s piano work, particularly the treble side. Some shots were very wide, others less so. The variety of views, combined with talented switching from shot to shot, greatly enhanced the concert experience, as did the beautiful stage on which they performed.
Before the concert, there was a half-hour conversation with McGill led by professor of Thomas C. Holt, professor of American and African American history at the University of Chicago. McGill explained a recent home video he had made where he performed “America the Beautiful” as a comment on racism. In the video he switched from major key to minor key to make the point that social change is necessary. His video sparked similar performances by other artists, including tenor Lawrence Brownlee.
While other music organizations languish, University of Chicago Presents has been a leader in finding ways to keep top quality music available, and so far they have done this by charging not a penny to those who listen. The live streaming page featured a small chat box, and many folks listening posted where they were listening from.
The former Head of Music at Lyric Opera, Phil Morehead, was tuning in from Ontario with his wife Pat (who studied at the University of Chicago). There was at least one listener from Poland and one from Argentina. And there were several Southside neighborhoods represented, including Woodlawn and Chatham. But the one neighborhood mentioned more often than any other was Hyde Park. It was a pleasure to see the names of many of the folks I would normally see in Mandel Hall.
Visit chicagopresents.uchicago.edu to find an archived link to this concert. Bravo, UCP!