You’re in for an “extraordinarily rare” experience at Sunday’s Music at Hillwood matinee recital.
The McGill/McHale Trio performs a program including works by Dvorak and Saint-Saens and two pieces arranged by pianist Michael McHale. While the performance may be extraordinary, it is the players — specifically two of them — that make the occasion so rare.
In 2014, clarinetist Anthony McGill became the first African-American named principal player of any instrument in the New York Philharmonic since its 1843 founding. His brother, Demarre, was the first African-American principal player for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, now acting principal flutist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. “We’re neighbors now,” says Demarre, who works at the Met Opera House while his kid brother by four years plays at Geffen Hall across Lincoln Center Plaza. “The trio,” he says, “is the first time we’ve worked regularly together professionally.”
NOT SO DIVERSE
While black musicians are vastly underrepresented in symphony orchestras, they’re even rarer in chamber ensembles, says Caroline Stoessinger, host and artistic director of Music at Hillwood. Even the Harlem String Quartet now has only one African-American player, violinist Melissa White. In September, an African-American, cellist Astrid Schween, joined the Juilliard String Quartet.
“If you can’t think of an African-American concert pianist besides Andre Watts,” says Stoessinger, “it’s because they don’t exist.
“Prejudice still exists on some level,” she says. “But it’s also lack of opportunity. A child needs a great teacher and a fine instrument by age 4 or 5, maybe a bit later for a woodwind player. They need parents to get them to lessons and encourage them to study and practice. Then they need a mentor who’ll find the right competitions to enter, the right auditions.”
Anthony McGill says he “feels proud” of being the first African-American principal player for the Philharmonic. “But I realize there were a lot of people who came before me who were not allowed the opportunities I was. When someone comes to a concert and sees one person who looks like him, that’s important. . . . Art crosses cultures.”
Stoessinger is writing a novel about diversity, or its lack, in classical music, based in part on Jeannette Thurber, an early patron of classical music in the United States who opened a conservatory that accepted minorities, women and people with disabilities. One of her notable African-American students, Harry Burleigh, later a composer, sang for Dvorak while he was director of Thurber’s National Conservatory, possibly inspiring passages from the Czech composer’s Symphony for the New World. So it is fitting, Stoessinger says, that a piece by Dvorak, an early champion of African-American music and musicians (Burleigh became his conservatory assistant), is part of Sunday’s recital. Watts’ champion was Leonard Bernstein. He gave the pianist his big break when Glenn Gould canceled a performance with the New York Philharmonic. Watts substituted and never looked back.
“We need more champions for diversity — now perhaps more than ever,” Stoessinger says.