Musician Anthony McGill made waves in 2020 even though he couldn’t perform on stage with the New York Philharmonic, where he’s the principal clarinetist. He’s the first Black principal musician to hold such a position at one of the oldest orchestras in the United States.
Last year, McGill, 41, won the Avery Fisher Prize, which recognizes outstanding achievement and excellence in music. It comes with a $100,000 prize.
Organizers selected McGill for his contributions to the Black Lives Matter protests that were sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.
In response, McGill made a video he named #TakeTwoKnees. He posted it to Facebook, where it quickly went viral.
It shows a somber McGill performing “America The Beautiful” in a haunting minor key. At the end of his rendition, he takes two knees and puts his clarinet behind his back, imitating social protests that were done by athletes at sporting events around the globe and bringing it into the music world.
Listen: Anthony McGill talks about diversity in classical music and the music he’ll be performing this weekend with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
“I think music is powerful,” says McGill. “The reason that ideas and minds change is because they are changed through their hearts. You can never put a fact in front of someone’s face and they read it and say, ‘OK, I changed my mind about that issue.’ The power of arts, the power of music is greater than the sum of its parts.”
McGill is in Detroit to perform at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s 43rd annual Classical Roots Celebration concert, which honors and celebrates African American composers, musicians and educators. McGill will be joined alongside the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by conductor William Eddins and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who is being honored by the DSO this weekend.
“Wynton being one of my heroes,” McGill says.
While McGill gets to perform alongside one of his role models, the bigger picture for him is being a role model for the next generation of musicians who are hoping to find a place for themselves in the often exclusive world of classical music.
The DSO’s Classical Roots Celebration concert takes place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 6. It’s available to watch at home through the DSO’s digital concert series.