Moments after Joe Biden is sworn in as vice president of the United States on the West Front of the Capitol and just before Barack Obama takes his oath as president, four classical musicians will perform a work created by John Williams for the history-rich inauguration. One of those players is Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and a newcomer to the Peabody Conservatory faculty.
When he got the word last month that he would be participating in what might be considered the mother of all gigs, McGill's initial reaction was: "Wow, this is absolutely unbelievable. When I was watching the election on TV, going to the inauguration was the furthest thing from my mind," he says. "I have to say that, nerve-wise, it's now a question of coming down, calming down from that."
The clarinetist, whose formidable technique and impeccable taste in phrasing were showcased in solo concerto stints with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2001 and 2004, will share the honor of the Jan. 20 premiere with violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Gabriela Montero. On the official inauguration program, unveiled Dec. 17, the group's contribution is listed simply as a "musical selection" by "composer/arranger" Williams.
McGill will join his colleagues for a first look at the score this week in New York. Another rehearsal is slated next week; the musicians arrive in Washington on Jan. 18. There aren't a lot of other details yet. "I guess it's on a need-to-know basis," McGill says with a laugh. "I just know I'll be there at the right time."
Although he's used to playing in one of the world's great opera houses and in traditional concert halls, McGill is adjusting to the prospect of playing outdoors on what is likely to be a cold mid-January day.
"From what I've been told, it is going to be a heated-stage situation," he says. "That's something to think about, since I have to blow through my instrument. But [the weather] is one of the lesser worries, given the magnitude of the event."
Music for violin, cello, clarinet and piano is not common. The most prominent example is a boldly original and profound piece by Olivier Messiaen, Quartet for the End of Time (perhaps Williams has envisioned a Quartet for the End of the Previous Administration). That Messiaen masterwork found McGill and Yo-Yo Ma performing together for the first time seven years ago in Japan. The clarinetist hasn't worked with Perlman or Montero before.
"I'm not exactly sure how I got chosen for this," he says. "Basically, a day before the rest of the world found out about it, I found out about it."
Originally from Chicago's South Side, McGill, 29, studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and received a coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant. He was named associate principal clarinet of the Cincinnati Orchestra at 21, and served in that post until being named principal clarinet of the much-acclaimed Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he is now in his fifth season.
"The first year was a shock," he says. "It's extremely busy." Although two principal clarinetists share the workload, the schedule is intense for each, with multiple rehearsals and performances week after week. "I wouldn't say it gets easier, but you get accustomed to it," McGill adds. "You find a way to play at a high level all the time, even when you're tired. You learn how to pace it out."
He savors the rewards of being in the pit of this country's operatic epicenter. "There are quite a few times every year when, after a performance, you feel you've done something really valuable for mankind," the clarinetist says, "performing operas that really mean something and blow your mind."
That's how he felt about a recent production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde conducted by Daniel Barenboim. "That was unbelievable," McGill says. "It was one of those experiences that, musically and artistically, was at the highest level - the effort, the emotion and the result, the entire combination. Barenboim told us 'You are so lucky to have a music director like James Levine.' But he also showed us why he's amazing, too."
McGill, who also enjoys the sounds emanating above his head on the Met stage ("I like all the big stars, like everyone else"), finds satisfaction in getting outside Lincoln Center from time to time to play chamber music and concertos, and to teach.
Since joining Peabody in the fall, he has been traveling to Baltimore every couple of weeks or so to teach "two very talented freshmen. It's my first real affiliation with a school," McGill says. "The people running the place are great. Everyone seems to be enthusiastic, including the students."
The clarinetist's activity at Peabody and his other musical pursuits will likely be a secondary part of his career. "I think I would love to stay at the Met as long as I possibly could," he says.
Of course, after a zillion people witness McGill performing at the inauguration, there's no telling what other offers he'll receive.
The BSO's 2008-2009 season features works by Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein, composer/conductors championed by the orchestra's music director, Marin Alsop. In April, she was to have conducted Bernstein's Opening Prayer and Mahler's shattering Symphony No. 6, but the valedictory Symphony No. 9 will be substituted for the Sixth.
"Mahler 6 would have needed 14 extra players," says BSO president/CEO Paul Meecham. "Marin did Mahler 9 in Bournemouth [England] last year. I suggested the change, which she was happy to do. It still preserves the Mahler/Bernstein theme, and we haven't done Mahler 9 in a long time. [Neither symphony has been played by the BSO since 1992.] The savings are between $15,000 and $20,000."
Like other arts organizations in this challenging national recession, the BSO is carefully watching the bottom line. "Some production things on the pops side were also scaled back," Meecham says, "things you wouldn't really notice. We did the right thing to look at all our expenditures."