Black classical music played by a black soloist adds to a powerful evening in Saint-Paul

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Since the death of George Floyd, orchestras across America have pledged to perform more music by black composers. While admirable, audiences can scan the stage and observe a rarity of black musicians playing this music.

There are several reasons why this is true, but I’m glad the clarinetist Anthony McGill is over there doing the work. The first conductor of the black section of the New York Philharmonic’s 180-year history, McGill is also one of the few recitalists of his instrument to headline major concert series.

Like the international artist series of the Schubert Club, based in St. Paul. McGill performed the final program for its 2021-22 season Thursday night, and it turned out to be an emotionally powerful evening – music by contemporary black composers, performed by one of America’s most prominent black soloists.

In tandem with pianist Anna Polonsky, McGill has lent the emotionally evocative voice of her clarinet to 21st-century works by James Lee III and Jessie Montgomery that express unanswered questions about what it means to be black in America today.

But he also tapped into the festive spirit of another black composer, Adolphus Hailstork, and took the audience of St. Paul’s Ordway Concert Hall to a place of rare beauty with a rhapsody by Claude Debussy, the only composer non-American on the program. Add the clarinet sonatas by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland and you have one of the most rewarding recitals the Twin Cities have hosted since live concerts became a thing again.

A high bar was set early with “Ad Anah?” of Lee. Inspired by a Hebrew phrase of lamentation over injustice, it was a contemplative opening, filled with McGill’s research phrases rising up against Polonsky’s dark dissonances. The long held note by the clarinetist at the conclusion offered no solution to the chord or the question.

McGill took the stage alone for Hailstork’s “Three Smiles for Tracey,” a bubbling work in which the soloist seemed to be playing a game of musical tag with himself, often sounding like two characters engaged in dialogue.

Leonard Bernstein’s 1942 Clarinet Sonata was his first published work, but served as a preview of the then 24-year-old composer’s upcoming attractions. Bernstein’s defiance of traditional structure emerged in the opening movement, his wistful manner with an (too brief) ballad in the second, and overtones of “New York, New York,” comedy musical “On the Town” by Bernstein in 1944, in the finale.

For sheer beauty, nothing surpassed Debussy’s rhapsody, a piercing dreamscape with periodic detours over troubled terrain. And Montgomery’s “Peace” — which McGill dedicated to the residents of the Twin Cities in recognition of their difficult 2020 — had a similarly unstable, questioning tone to Lee’s work that opened the concert.

After all that, the violin sonata that Aaron Copland rewrote for clarinet in 1980 might seem like a conventional conclusion to the concert, but Polonsky’s evocations of those great sonic vistas that Copland can conjure up proved a welcome destination. It was easy to tell that it was written around the same time as “Appalachian Spring”; they share a similar spirit.

McGill and Polonsky have played together since childhood, and never has the bond between clarinetist and pianist been more palpable than here. As his closing notes faded to a whisper, my admiration grew for this expert interpreter of the music that too rarely graces our concert halls.

Anthony McGill
With: pianist Anna Polonsky
When: 10:30 a.m. Friday
Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Tickets: $28 to $61, available at 651-292-3268 or Schubert.org

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