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From Chicago To Obama's Inauguration And Back

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 13, 2010 7:20PM

Anthony McGill performs this Sunday with the Avalon String Quartet (photo from
Chicago native Anthony McGill made it to the top of his profession in a hurry. He graduated from the elite Curtis Institute of Music at age 20, immediately won a position with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and four years later became the principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Now 30, McGill is one of the most sought-after classical clarinetists.

Still, a single four-minute concert stands out, and he wasn't even playing live at the time. On January 20, 2009, McGill joined Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Gabriela Montrero in a performance of John Williams's "Air and Simple Gifts" at Barack Obama's inauguration.

Given the gobs of local media coverage of the now-year-old event, and given McGill's other impressive accomplishments, we were reluctant to ask him about it, choosing to first feel him out with a question about whether he was yet sick of answering inauguration-related questions. His response was the only time he dropped his affable demeanor during our conversation. "No, not at all," he said in a tone that bordered on annoyance. "I think about it pretty much every day."

The road to the inauguration performance began in 2001 when he played a concert with Yo-Yo Ma while touring Japan with pianist Mitsuko Uchida. That was the last he heard from Ma for eight years, until one morning in December, 2008, he received a call out of the blue from one of Ma's managers inviting him to play for the inauguration. "I thought it was a prank, one of my friends trying to get me, because it was just a month or so after this incredible election. And so I didn't expect to be there, let alone be a part of it." After he realized the legitimacy of the offer, the rest became, as the say, history. The group recorded the piece ahead of time and pantomimed the live performance due the extremely cold temperature.

McGill grew up in Chatham, the second born son of artistic parents. His father recently retired as Deputy Fire Commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department and his mother is now pursuing acting, but the couple met in college while training to become art teachers. Both McGill and his older brother, Demarre McGill, Jr., started on piano and then switched to woodwinds (Demarre now plays principal flute in the San Diego Symphony). Under his parents' guiding hand, McGill attended Poe Classical and then Whitney Young from seventh grade through the beginning of high school, after which McGill transferred to the Interlochen Arts Academy, an arts boarding school in Michigan, graduating a couple years early.

While living in Chicago, he received extra training from the Merit School of Music, a privately-run institution established 31 years ago to provide subsidized, high quality music education to children who wouldn't otherwise have access to training due to its absence in most schools and how expensive it is to pursue privately. McGill identifies his time there as one of the main building blocks that has led to his current success. He remains an active Merit advocate, sitting on the school's National Advisory Board.

McGill will return to Merit this Sunday for a performance with the Avalon String Quartet (albeit at a location that didn't exist when he was there, Merit having moved to the West Loop in 2005). The five musicians will play the Clarinet Quintet by Johannes Brahms, which McGill calls "one of the most beautiful pieces ever written." Avalon will also play Franz Schubert's "Quartettsatz" and Beethoven's String Quartet No. 12.

Sunday, April 18, at 4:00 p.m., Gottlieb Hall at the Merit School of Music, 38 S. Peoria, $25, $10 students, tickets available here or by calling (800) 838-3006