5 Questions with Anthony McGill, Principal Clarinet of the New York Philharmonic

Anthony McGill, a world-renowned classical musician, became the New York Philharmonic’s first African-American Principal player in 2014. He is an ardent advocate for promoting music education in underserved communities and addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in classical music.

As both a New Yorker and New York Philharmonic musician, Anthony is no stranger to Central Park. He’s performed there multiple times as part of the Philharmonic’s outdoor concert series. Since 1965, this iconic New York summer experience has provided New Yorkers the opportunity to listen to classical music with the Park’s stunning views as a backdrop. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s season was moved to a digital celebration, but Anthony looks forward to creating more memorable Central Park moments when the series resumes next summer.

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Anthony McGill, the New York Philharmonic’s first African-American Principal player, has performed in Central Park multiple times as part of the Philharmonic’s outdoor concert series. Photo by Chris Lee

Instead of gathering for this beloved annual event in the Park, we talked with Anthony about his experience playing in Central Park, how music can unite us, and more.

Pamela Hernández: You've played music all around the world. What’s it like to play in Central Park for the New York Philharmonic’s outdoor concerts?

Anthony McGill: Some of the greatest concerts of my life have been in Central Park. Just walking out there at night and seeing the skyline and the stars in the distance and knowing that there are thousands of people listening to me perform solo with the New York Philharmonic—it's almost like I can't imagine that. Part of it was terrifying, but also exhilarating! There were so many people listening to the New York Philharmonic for the first time. It is also very fun to be out there with so many New Yorkers enjoying music under the sky.

New York Philharmonic performs in Central Park on a summer evening

Since 1965, the New York Philharmonic has transformed parks throughout the City with free classical music under the stars. Though this summer’s concerts have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Philharmonic plans to resume the series in 2021. Photo by Chris Lee

Many musicians are now expressing themselves without an audience. In May, you launched #TakeTwoKnees, your tribute to kneeling protests of police violence, with a rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Can you talk about the #TakeTwoKnees movement and why you chose this song for it?

Music helps me in so many ways. It helps me deal with the fear, pain, and uncertainty of these times, and it helps me cope with everything that has been going on during the last few months. Music can make us feel connected. Music can cross barriers, borders, ideas, and beliefs. It can show us that we're all in this together and that we are stronger together.

I felt that I could examine a very uniquely American problem musically through that song. I started off playing the melody as I normally would—in a major key. It's kind of happy, it's “America the Beautiful”! Then, I switched into a minor key toward the end, when the song talks about everything being beautiful. I decided to leave the last note unresolved as we, our country, face these lingering issues.

It has been beautiful to hear from people I don't know: "Your video really touched me. It gave me hope, but it was also heart-wrenching.” That’s what music can do—it can make us think, make us attempt to do better.

What have you noticed since you started the #TakeTwoKnees movement?

Ever since I started the #TakeTwoKnees movement, "America the Beautiful” has taken on a different meaning for me. What it means to me is that we should examine everything that we hold true as Americans, that we take for granted, that sometimes we're complacent about—like the concepts of freedom and equality—that we all grow up with and learn in songs and in our Constitution. If somebody is not free in this country, or if America isn't always beautiful for everyone, then we're not living up to those ideals. Thus, I think it's important that we listen to our songs and sing our beautiful anthems, and we think about what the words really mean for everyone.

Can you talk about the experience of other musicians, such as Billy Hunter and Allison Loggins-Hull, joining you to #TakeTwoKnees?

The hundreds of beautiful tributes that I've heard have really moved and inspired me. I've noticed that most musicians feel similarly about these kinds of issues. They've joined me in using their voices to support justice, equality, and righteousness in the world, and that's a beautiful thing for a community of musicians who can’t play together and perform right now. They want to communicate about something greater than themselves. And that's been really, really inspiring to me.

What are you hopeful for in the future?

I'm hopeful that we all continue to examine how we can do better for our fellow human beings and evolve. As bad as things may be, we must always keep being better humans for each other. And I think that has happened, and hopefully continues to happen. We must continue to evolve and not give up that hope.