“I grew up – even before I played an instrument – listening to my brother practice, for a few years actually. And so I learned probably what the sound of a wind instrument was because of him,” said Anthony McGill in a recent phone interview.
Today, the McGill brothers occupy two of the most coveted positions in the classical music world – Anthony McGill serves as principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic, and Demarre McGill holds the principal flute chair with the Seattle Symphony. Not long ago, the McGill brothers met in the middle – in their hometown of Chicago – to make their most recent solo recording together.
Winged Creatures and Other Works for Flute, Clarinet and Orchestra (Cedille Records) marks several special occasions for the McGill brothers. The disc features the world-premiere recordings of Michael Abels’ Winged Creatures and Joel Puckett’s Concerto Duo, as well as performances of works that the McGills have played together since their teen years. The brothers also perform as soloists with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra – the orchestra with which, during their youth, they both played as members – conducted by Allen Tinkham.
“To be able to go back to Chicago with this generation of Chicago Youth Symphony musicians and record serious music with them with a serious label, and to have everyone listen from Columbus to Chicago to New York, is pretty awesome,” said McGill. “It’s a very special thing for us to be able to do this with the next, and the next, generation.”
The recording project for Winged Creatures emerged at the end of the McGill brothers’ previous recording project, the McGill/McHale Trio’s recording Portraits, released in 2017 also on the Chicago-based Cedille label.
“Jim Ginsburg, who is the owner and founder of Cedille Records, asked us, ‘What is next? What is next?’” McGill said. “So someone had the idea – we champion Chicago artists, let’s champion the McGill brothers here in Chicago and bring them back and work with the group that kind of started it all for them, which is the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra.”
In 2017, the American composer Joel Puckett had written his Concerto Duo for flute, clarinet and orchestra for the McGill brothers, who premiered the work with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra that year. In his notes about his Concerto Duo, Puckett says his piece is inspired by “shared experiences and the joy of sibling camaraderie” – memories of his own childhood with his sister, and also reflections on more recent experiences with his own children.
The piece begins with a movement that conveys the excitement of riding a roller coaster.
“It’s really loud and exciting and screechy,” McGill said, “and we’re playing super-high notes and it’s almost like rock music, it’s so thrilling.”
Then the work turns into Puckett’s own musical reflections on a lullaby his grandmother used to sing to him, and which he now sings to his daughter.
“It becomes very emotional and full of also this sweet sadness that I think only music can describe,” McGill said.
The McGill brothers added to the recording project two well-known masterworks for flute and clarinet – Franz Danzi’s Sinfonia Concertante for Flute, Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 41 and Saint-Saëns’ Tarantelle, Op. 6. Cedille Records then commissioned Michael Abels, a composer with Chicago ties, to compose a work for the McGills to record.
In his notes for Winged Creatures, Abels writes that, in composing the work, he explored the “differing styles of flight among creatures of the air.”
“And it feels like we’re flying throughout the piece,” McGill said. “(Abels) describes butterflies, but you could be any kind of winged creature flying through the sky and traveling through the world and migrating throughout the different hemispheres. And there are moments of peace within that, where if you’re the winged creature you kind of land, and you take in your surroundings, and then you travel on to the next destination, if you will.”
It’s both poetic and fitting that it was the dyed-in-the-wool Chicago project to record Winged Creatures and Other Works for Flute, Clarinet and Orchestra that brought the far-flung McGill brothers to land back home in Chicago, where they first played together as musical siblings, and to record with the orchestra with which they cut their teeth as orchestral musicians.
“All of these years later, all of the things that have happened, all the practicing and auditions and failures and successes – it brings us back because we never stopped, really, doing this,” McGill said, “but now we get to present our sounds to the world in a way that is very special to us and meaningful.”