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MA Top 30 Professional of the Year: Anthony McGill
By John Fleming
December 7, 2021


Principal Clarinet
New York Philharmonic

On May 27, 2020, Anthony McGill woke up about 5 a.m. and wrote down in his phone thoughts and emotions he had about the police murder of George Floyd two days earlier. McGill, principal clarinet with the New York Philharmonic—the first African American to hold a first-chair position in the orchestra—was in lockdown at his home in the Bronx. Later that day, he filmed himself playing a ghostly minor-key rendition of America the Beautiful and posted the 93-second video to Facebook.

“I didn’t know the music by heart, and as I was transposing it from a piano part, I played a wrong note or two and had the idea that it would be really compelling to communicate the pain I was feeling by putting the melody into a minor key,” he said.

McGill’s sorrowful yet lyrical solo, which ended with him dropping to both knees, clarinet held behind his back, was a seminal moment in the Black Lives Matter protests amid the pandemic. The video, titled Take Two Knees, went viral, generating more than 50,000 views in less than two days and inspiring heartfelt responses.

“Every video by other musicians that I watched brought me to tears,” McGill said. “Even in isolation, the responses showed how passionate the music community could be in speaking out against racial violence and injustice. The only way a lot of us know how to communicate profoundly with the world is through our instruments and our art.”

In October, McGill gave a performance with the Philharmonic that strongly evoked his George Floyd video and the issue of police brutality against people of color. He was the soloist in Anthony Davis’s You Have the Right to Remain Silent, a 2011 work whose title is from the Miranda warning police deliver to suspects. It stemmed from a tense traffic stop of the Black composer by a white policeman, with the clarinet as the protagonist and the orchestra as the cop interrogating him. “It was so meaningful to experience this piece,” said McGill, who had previously played it with the Cincinnati Symphony. “Once again, I was using music to heal myself but also to communicate with the world.”

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