Heard From the Mountaintop
Clarinetist Anthony McGill is playing a new concerto where his instrument's part is inspired by the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in an iconic speech. The work is called Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra: From the Mountaintop by Richard Danielpour.
Performance Today host Fred Child spoke to McGill about the challenges and rewards of this new work. Read the interview below, and for a limited time, hear the full performance on the Jan. 16 episode of Performance Today.
FRED CHILD: Anthony McGill thank you so much for joining me.
ANTHONY MCGILL: Thanks for having me.
FC: This concerto by Richard Danielpour is not just a piece for clarinet and orchestra. There's a really clear narrative and story line and inspiration and even a clear role for what you represent as the solo clarinet in this piece. What is your role as the soloist?
AM: Well, talking to Richard about this piece before he finished it, we sat down together and met quite a few times to discuss kind of some of his history with wanting to write a piece like this. And so the clarinet represents kind of a figure like a preacher in a church like in a Southern Baptist church. He wanted to represent it like this as a preacher or speaker even, at moments, to kind of represent represent Dr. Martin Luther King giving a speech or a sermon in a church. So these kind of images come to mind when using the clarinet part as a kind of voice in the pulpit kind of singing at times, crying at times, wailing at other times and just kind of evoking these sorts of emotions that one thinks of when one thinks of the civil rights movement in general.
FC: So how do you as the clarinet soloist embody this voice? The Southern Baptist preacher and at times embody the sound of Dr. King. How do you embody that as a performer?
AM: Well this there is a lot of deep history there and I think Richard with his interactions with the different people affiliated with the that movement really captures some of the soul of the spirit of this time of this of this time in America and the voice of the clarinet he uses in such a way that it is really soulful and really full of emotion at many different--you know at the extremes of emotion, sadness, happiness of kind of dance music or solemn prayer. All of these things, he uses the clarinet specifically in a way that makes it really easy to kind of hear that in the voice. And as a performer, you know, this is what we dream of we dream of: having a piece where we can express fully or at least as close as we can get to something that is something that is real, something that is human and beautiful. And to actually capture the moments in the piece that he captures captures the struggle the kind of pain involved in all of this. And I think he does a beautiful job with that.
FC: The piece is subtitled from the mountaintop. And that's a reference to April 3rd 1968 the final speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Have you gone back and watched the video or listened to the audio of that speech as part of getting ready to play this piece?
AM: Yes I did listen to this speech in particular. Richard and I talked about this speech numerous times and it affects the performance for sure. There's one moment in the piece that you can hear. It's kind of the slow movement. That's kind of a duet between the timpani and the clarinet and the piece is all done in one movement basically one continuous kind of sound. But there are different movements. And in this movement you can hear the timpani kind of representing the thunder that you can hear slightly in the background during the speech. And this feeling of foreboding and thinking about what's going to happen in the near future to Dr. King. And I think it's a really poignant and beautiful moment and this speech is so powerful and so so moving because you know he kind of speaks about about the future and how it almost sounds like he knows that he's already sacrificed his life for this struggle. And it's a really effective thing to him if you do get a chance to to listen to it and then to to listen to the piece because I think it really ties in amazingly to the effectiveness of the piece and to the kind of sad little piece the piece is terribly sad and sorrowful at times and yet so beautiful and peaceful at other times. So it is really important speech to connect the piece with them.
FC: Anthony you mentioned that Dr. King during this mountaintop speech seems to have a sense of what was coming and I want to play a little clip for you about 30 seconds from this speech and then talk about how that connects with the music that Richard Danielpour wrote. Here's just a moment from this mountaintop speech by Dr. King.
MLK: And I've seen the promise man. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land!
FC: That was almost 50 years ago and it hasn't lost any power over those past 50 years. I mean that still makes my hair stand on end to hear the emotion in his voice. The connection with the congregation there in Memphis and knowing what happened shortly after that. How does that sound, how does that speech and maybe even that moment in that speech, how does that connect with the music that Richard Danielpour wrote?
AM: This is it's very emotional to listen to that, you know, especially even just a tiny little clip of it because you can hear in his voice a certain kind of musicality in the way he spoke. And a lot of really great people that give speeches and a lot of great speakers and preachers have this musicality in their sound of their voices and especially they have what is very clear which is a distinct emotion in that sound that affects you immediately.
And as a as a performer this is exactly what you're trying to do as a musician to communicate this sort of fire, this sort of passion, this sort of, this sort of pain and the soulfulness and this emotion and this musicality of the voice, this is the thing that moves people. That moves people to do things that are very dangerous for them to try to change their own lives. And I think you know as a musician trying to communicate through your instrument to an audience is a very similar thing. That's what were the ultimate goal is to is to connect with an audience in the way that Dr. King connected with a whole generation of people, of movement of people, to try to change their lives for the better. And this voice still resonates very very loudly and very strongly today to hopefully continue to help us move forward. And like I said try to get to that mountaintop. It's basically a constant struggle to improve our lives, to improve mankind. And I think that his voice rings louder than ever today and through this piece, through music, through different voices, I mean I think we can all continue this struggle and continue moving forward to become you know greater people, greater humans.
FC: Anthony we'd just heard a moment from Dr. King's Speech April 1968 the mountaintop speech. He's talking about, 'I may not get there with you,' but he makes this promise that we will get to the promised land. Is there a particular moment in Danielpour's piece that echoes that moment of the speech?
AM: I think there are moments of... There are peaks and valleys in the piece that are actually very interesting. And I mean just to kind of give a little bit of a summary of certain aspects of this, at the beginning of the piece, it starts off with a very high note kind of solo clarinet line. And it starts to go down actually in scope and it's very soft but very high and we start to calm down. And I think this is kind of in a way it's symbolic for me of where we're starting from, where we're trying to... the hope of the top of the mountain top. And as we go down we can travel through these different harmonies and to kind of start of them the movement. You hear these dance rhythms and things. And then in the middle as I mentioned with the timpani writing and the speech in the middle you have this moment. But towards the end of the piece I will say there is some of the most beautiful writing ever written for clarinet. Where you don't know that we have gotten there but you do know that with the beauty of this music that there is hope in the soun. And in its sadness it reveals that there is progress and yet there is a moment where he does say you know he may not get there with you but you can hear it in this music that there is such hope for continuing to move up in that direction. And some of the highest points of the piece are later on in the work where you do feel this lightness of being as though you're being lifted. And it is these are wonderful moments. You'll know exactly where in the piece I'm talking about this when you listen to it.
FC: Anthony I know you've got to go here in just a second but you've played this piece several times I wonder if there was anything unique about playing it at the Gateways Festival.
AM: Yes. The Gateways Festival is a wonderful festival and the musicians are African-American musicians and I got to solo with them. I believe that was last year with this piece, From the Mountaintop. And it was a really amazing moment in time. And to kind of understand the history... And even every person on that stage has some history, you know just being African-American musicians, classical musicians specifically, to be able to play this piece about our history and our present was a wonderful, wonderful honor. And I think that there was this feeling that everyone could understand based on that history of experience in our families and in our communities. And it made for an especially moving performance I believe.
FC: Anthony McGill principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic and soloist in this performance of From the Mountaintop, the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra by Richard Danielpour and the man Richard Daniel poor wrote this piece for. Anthony McGill thank you so much for speaking with me.
AM: Thank you so much.