Instrumentalist of the Year:
Anthony McGill

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Whether playing President Obama’s inauguration or breaking glass ceilings as the New York Philharmonic’s first Black principal, the American clarinetist is used to making waves. Post pandemic, the demand for solo performances, social justice work, and commitments as an educator and role model for young hopefuls mean he’s busier than ever.

2024 Muscial America Instrumentalist of the Year:<br>Anthony McGill
© Todd Rosenberg

Anthony McGill was America’s most recognized clarinetist well before the pandemic hit. Millions of Americans who might never set foot in a concert hall had seen him on TV, perhaps as a teenage guest on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1994, if not at the 2009 presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, where he performed in a quartet with Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Gabriela Montero.

In 2014 he won first chair at the New York Philharmonic, becoming the first Black principal player in that storied institution. There, he soon made himself essential, whether with the magnetic radiance of his sound in lyrical moments or the ebullience of his technique in a barnstormer like the Nielsen Clarinet Concerto.

In the summer of 2020, McGill was thrust into the limelight again with a performance in which the silence was as memorable as the music. Anguished by the murder of George Floyd, he filmed himself playing a version of “America the Beautiful” that had been transposed into the minor. After the last, forlorn, note, he clasped his instrument behind his back and sank to his knees. The hashtag #TakeTwoKnees drew a flood of video tributes from colleagues across the arts world. Within days, McGill was at the center of an industry-wide appraisal of racial prejudices in classical music.

Three years on, McGill finds himself busier than ever, not only as a player, but as an educator and activist for change. In addition to a regular season with the New York Philharmonic, he will appear with ensembles in Indiana and Minnesota with a new transcription of a violin concerto by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, trade band camp memories and clarinet jokes onstage with comedian (and fellow clarinetist) Kimberly Clark, and invite audiences in London and Los Angeles into the claustrophobic world of Anthony Davis’s You Have the Right to Remain Silent. The haunting chamber concerto includes a rare turn by McGill on the towering contra-alto clarinet, from which he draws forth otherworldly moans and multiphonics.

In a phone interview McGill described learning the piece, which also calls for improvisation, as initially both “frightening and exciting.” But now that he has performed it a number of times with orchestras, including the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra where he held his first orchestral post, he’s learned to find himself within the work’s wilder moments. “What’s really beautiful,” he said, “is that he wrote this piece to give freedom to someone like me, who grew up playing strictly classical music.”

For McGill, supplementing orchestral work with teaching, chamber music, and soloist engagements is both a balancing act and a catalyst for constant learning. “It’s really easy to lose that sense of exploration,” he said. “But even by playing a contemporary piece, I’m learning how to play Brahms or Beethoven better, with a more thoughtful, beginner’s ear.”

On the other hand, he said, orchestral playing constantly challenges his listening skills, as he trains his awareness on dozens of sound sources on stage. But as far as artistic freedom is concerned, he feels no great difference. Either way, he said, “you have to be willing to try things.” 

Even in small ensembles, McGill will often invite his chamber music partners to suggest phrasing for one of his lines or to let him know whether he’s accurately mirroring their expression. “I like that feeling of playing things how other people would like them,” he said. Then he added with a laugh, “if you don’t, you probably shouldn’t be in an orchestra.”

That diplomatic streak is part of what has made McGill so effective in difficult conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion. In May he convened a classical music retreat on racial justice and inclusivity in the field at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. “I think we all need to be reminded that things still haven’t changed that much,” he said, “and things should continue to move forward.”

He relishes his work with the young musicians in the Juilliard School’s Music Advancement Program (MAP), of which he is the artistic director. When McGill won the Avery Fisher Prize in 2020, he used part of the money to seed a scholarship to enable MAP students to take part in summer schools and festivals. “To find kids that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have access to a program like that and to help them explore music, that gives me joy.”

“A lot of these diversity initiatives will only have an effect when people understand why we should care about them in the first place,” he said. “It’s not about numbers. It’s about humanity and empathy and connection.” •

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim is a writer and the founder of the deep-listening concert series Beginner’s Ear. A longtime contributing music critic for the New York Times, her work garnered honors including the 2021 Virgil Thomson Award for Outstanding Criticism. You can subscribe to her newsletter on mindfulness and music at