Sunday, March 1, 2009


[Anthony] McGill, 29, was plucked from the ranks of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he is one of two principal clarinetists, by [Yo-Yo] Ma, who was asked to help organize the [inaugural] performance [of John Williams's Simple Gifts].

“It’s the most wonderful opportunity, obviously, I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Mr. McGill said at a breakfast interview in an Upper West Side cafe near his home a week before the inauguration. “It’s just great to be part of something like this, as a person, as an American, as a musician.”

He continued, “If my life as a musician is about reaching out to people, being able to communicate music to the world and to people on my small scale — my clarinet playing — this is obviously such a gift.”

A month after receiving the invitation, Mr. McGill still seemed a little stunned. “I thought they were going to say, ‘Sorry,’ ” he said. Even when he saw his name on the news release, “I was like, ‘That’s crazy.’ ”

Mr. McGill is not a world-famous soloist like [Itzhak] Perlman or Mr. Ma; the Met is only his second job, which he took four years ago after a stint as the associate principal and E flat clarinetist in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. But he has quietly come to be recognized among colleagues for his sensitive playing and refined musicianship.

Those qualities stood out for Mr. Ma eight years ago, when he and Mr. McGill played [Olivier] Messiaen’s Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) in Japan. “I was so struck just by his artistry,” Mr. Ma said in a telephone interview. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I really want to play with him again.’ ”

Mr. Ma said he recalled that sentiment when the organizers of the inauguration asked him and Mr. Perlman to put together an ensemble.

He noted that the group consisted of the same instrumentation as the Messiaen piece. The Williams work, however, “will be more like Quartet for the Next Four Minutes,” he said.

The piece evokes the music of Copland, who is said to be a favorite of Mr. Obama’s. “We wanted something that could reference America, the president-elect’s fondness for Copland, something that’s both uplifting and solemn, that traverses time but is also quintessentially American,” Mr. Ma said.

The musicians began rehearsing on Tuesday. They were not just thinking about the notes, but also about how to keep warm during the inauguration. Long underwear and hand warmers were on the agenda.

Mr. McGill is a product of the Merit Music School, a 30-year-old community program established to fill the gap in music education in Chicago schools. He attributes much of his success to that program.

His father is a retired deputy fire commissioner; his mother recently found a new career as an actress after retiring as an art teacher. His older brother, Demarre, now the principal flutist of the San Diego Symphony, was an important influence and role model, he said.

Anthony McGill attended the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Michelle Obama’s alma mater, and finished high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, Mich. He moved on to the elite Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for his bachelor’s degree, immediately winning the job in Cincinnati after graduation.

The McGills are among the few principal wind players in a major orchestra who are African-American, a distinction noteworthy in a field with far fewer people of color than other areas of American life.

Mr. McGill said that he recognized and valued the contribution of older African-Americans who integrated American orchestras. After encountering Norman Johns, a member of the Cincinnati cello section who is also African-American, Mr. McGill said, “I looked in Norman’s eyes when I walked in, and I could see how proud he was of me.” But like other African-American musicians of his generation, he does not wake up every day and think about his role. “If you’re a musician, you play music,” he said.

After the breakfast interview, Mr. McGill headed to Lincoln Center for a rehearsal with the center’s Chamber Music Society. The group plunged into the sextet for piano and winds by Poulenc, to be performed in concert at the Rose Studio in Manhattan later that week.

Mr. McGill played sitting back in his seat. He moved his upper body in sympathy with the angular, jerky rhythms, adding unexpected dynamic inflections and blending or deftly emerging when his part called for it. He watched his colleagues when they had solos, at one point rubbing the floor with his foot to signify praise for a passage by Peter Kolkay, the bassoonist.

Though Mr. McGill did not guide the rehearsal, he did speak out occasionally. He also took some good-natured ribbing about his next gig. Stephen Taylor, the group’s oboist, chanted, “You’re getting ready for the inauguration!” to a march tempo and told him that once on the inaugural stage, “You have to take requests.”

Daniel J. Wakin
The New York Times

Itzhak Perlman arrived in the fall of 2007 for his first rehearsal as conductor of the Westchester Philharmonic, he recognized many of the faces. He had studied with some of the musicians at Juilliard and soloed with other orchestras for which its members perform.

For the concertmaster, Robert Chausow, it was a camp reunion of sorts because as young men, he and Mr. Perlman had studied at Meadowmount School of Music, a summertime boot camp near Lake Champlain for accomplished violinists.

“There was an immediate sense of rapport,” Mr. Chausow said of the orchestra’s reaction to its new maestro.

The point is that Mr. Perlman’s taking the Philharmonic’s baton — a move that has injected the orchestra with new life — is not as startling a career move as some have said. Yes, Mr. Perlman, 63, the Heifetz of his generation, who was chosen to perform at the presidential inauguration last week, has decided for at least three seasons to lead a relatively unassuming regional orchestra that does not have a full schedule like that Philharmonic down in Manhattan.

But its 65 players are top-notch musicians who, for various reasons, have chosen a freelance life of hopscotching among groups, and a superstar like Mr. Perlman can feel at home. Mr. Chausow, 58, is a longtime member of the New York City Ballet’s orchestra and has played frequently with the New York City Opera. The trumpeter Lowell Hershey plays with the ballet and for 21 years has been in the pit nightly for “Phantom of the Opera,” Broadway’s longest-running show ever.

Whatever Mr. Perlman’s motivation, it’s clear from interviews that the players are reveling in their new commander.

“It’s a honeymoon, it’s a love affair,” is how Mr. Chausow put it. “By signing him, the future of the orchestra changed from bleak to bright in a heartbeat.”

For one thing, it’s far more satisfying to play before a full house, and Mr. Perlman’s reputation has helped fill all 1,400 seats at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College even when he’s not there. Those full houses defy an industrywide decline as young people spend more of their time Twitttering, friending and texting rather than cultivating the classics. Full houses bring in donations and corporate sponsors — the budget this year is $1.4 million — while their absence produces a Sisyphean struggle.

“It’s hard to raise money, and if you don’t have full houses, it’s even harder to raise money,” Mr. Hershey explains. “Bringing in Itzhak was sort of a Hail Mary pass.”

That desperate pass was hurled by Joshua Worby, the orchestra’s executive director, after a season of half-empty houses. He serendipitously met Mr. Perlman backstage at a concert that featured Mr. Perlman’s students, and with what-the-heck bravado, Mr. Worby e-mailed a proposition..

Teeming audiences also justify the presence of an orchestra less than an hour from Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. After all, the idea that there was a sizable pool of unserved Westchester aficionados was the idea behind the orchestra’s founding 26 years ago by Paul Lustig Dunkel. On a shoestring, he built it into a jewel of the suburban cultural landscape — matching his players with top-drawer soloists — but he could not keep audiences, and donors, coming.

Members of the orchestra say Mr. Perlman, known for his emotionally expressive violin bowing, has elevated their playing by making it more expressive: lush for the Romantic warhorses, elegant for the classical ones.

“In a short time, he’s been able to change the orchestra’s sound,” Mr. Chausow said. “Most violinists are taught to play soloistically, to express their personality, not to blend into a homogenized section sound.” But with an orchestra, individuality sometimes gets sacrificed in sustaining a harmonious sound. Mr. Perlman, Mr. Chausow said, has managed to let the musicians “play out” while achieving that harmony.

Mr. Perlman confirmed this paradoxical observation in an interview, saying he tried to draw out each player’s musical “fingerprint” while blending sounds into a whole.

“Each sound should be a solo sound — that’s what makes the difference between an orchestra that sounds good and one that sounds great,” he said. “It’s a particular attitude that happens that says, ‘I am an integral part of the section.’ You are part of the whole, but you are not just an add-on.”

There are different tales of how Mr. Perlman, who plays the violin as if it were an extension of his arms, has efficiently changed the tone of a symphonic phrase for the better. “Give me a fiddle!” he instructed a violinist, according to one teller, then tucked that violin under his chin and demonstrated a slightly altered fingering to the string section.

A comment sometimes made about Mr. Perlman’s conducting is that it is mostly self-taught, but members say technique has not posed a problem.

“Itzhak Perlman does not focus on beating time,” Mr. Chausow said. “He’s more focused on the gesture of the music and the phrasing, and he communicates a lot through facial expressions. It’s easy to know what he wants by the way he looks at you.”

Mr. Perlman modified that observation by emphasizing the mystery of what happens between a conductor and the orchestra, but admitted that he knows “in my head and in my ears” what he wants the orchestra to sound like. His model, he said, is Leonard Bernstein, “who choreographed his feeling about the music — he didn’t just beat the time. He showed you his own personal, intimate feeling about the music he was conducting, and that was contagious.”

If it’s contagious for the audience as well, then the Philharmonic will have more than answered skeptics who wonder why Westchester needs its own orchestra.

Joseph Berger
The New York Times

[S]ince 2004 [Peter Maxwell] Davies, already a knight of the realm, has also borne the venerable title master of the queen’s music. As such he is a public figure, and he hasn’t let the opportunity slip.

A likable but fiercely principled, combative character whose penetrating gaze can burn through the unwary like a laser beam, he is now a highly visible spokesman for the British music establishment and more: a national scourge of mediocrity and compromise, firing broadsides at the art world for its commercialism and at the government for everything from cultural vacuity to the war in Iraq.

When asked recently what sort of composer he considered himself to be, he said without hesitation: “Troublesome. Not by design but by nature.”

But Mr. Davies doesn’t just make trouble. He occasionally lands in it, a victim of his own unworldly nature. And right now he is involved in criminal proceedings as the victim of a huge fraud that appears to have been perpetrated on him over 30 years by two people who were his managers, friends and surrogate family.

Speaking candidly about the case, which came to light last May, Mr. Davies called it a blow “as bad as any I’ve ever had,” adding: “They were my family, I thought. And it’s the only thing that’s ever stopped me writing music. Even with bereavements I’ve carried on, never missed a deadline. With this, I froze. It took months to get going again.”

Full details will not be disclosed until the end of the proceedings, which were adjourned over the holidays. But a previous civil case made it clear that the amount is at least $725,000 and probably a lot more. Whatever the figure, it makes for a grim start to what should be a year of celebration, for Mr. Davies turns 75 in September.

When significant people reach significant ages there are varying narratives. They might look back on their achievement, God-like, and see it was good. Or they might be in denial, not ready to be grand old personages and admit that the end is near.

With Mr. Davies it’s some of both, but with a concern that advancing age brings too many big birthdays too fast. “I spent 18 months being 70,” he said, “traveling the world for celebrations and thinking, ‘You might as well enjoy this.’ Which I did. But I can’t take off another 18 months so soon, so I’ve been telling people to hold fire till I’m 80.”

Still, there will be celebrations: a major tribute at the City of London Festival, a concert series in Glasgow and other events around the world. And Mr. Davies will repeatedly be asked to look back over a crowded creative life and evaluate his achievement — an exercise he generally avoids, he said, because “it amounts to curating your own museum, which doesn’t interest me.”

Moving on is more important. Asked whether any pieces or periods in his work mean more than others, he said: “It’s always what I’m doing at this moment. I’m always right up against it, in my head, and it absorbs me totally, whether it’s for the Boston Symphony or the Sanday Fiddle Club on Orkney.”

But without being curatorial, can he admit to any shape, any coherence in his huge output, or has it been a random progress?

“Well, I do see a sort of line running through, with shifts and interruptions,” he said. “But I’ve never known what was around the corner and still don’t. There was a time in the late ’60s when everything exploded, the whole style changed into a kind of expressionism that was perhaps the spirit of the times, but I hadn’t expected it. It wasn’t planned. It just happened.”

Through the process of things simply “happening” you might trace several versions of Mr. Davies in the half-century of his mature work. The first emerges as an arcane musical intellect in the late ’50s and early ’60s, building scores from number games and fragments of medieval plainsong with an uncompromising rigor that says something about his background as a working-class youth from the back streets of Britain’s industrial north.

Rebellious, single-minded, largely self-taught, he is the kind of scholarship boy for whom the stakes are high as he grasps the possibility to escape from his home culture. And like any convert to a new creed, he does it with a determination that turns white-hot (not to say purist) after he wins more scholarships to leave Britain and study with high-minded modernists like Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt at Princeton.

But then, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, everything (as he says) explodes. He turns subversive, writing abrasively expressionist music-theater pieces like “Eight Songs for a Mad King,” in which a baritone with extended vocal technique rants and howls in the persona of the deranged King George III. A signal statement of the ’60s British avant-garde, it is music that sets out to shock. And its raw, essentially urban agenda of extreme emotional states is mirrored in larger works like the orchestral “Worldes Bliss,” whose ear-splitting cacophony prompts an audience walkout when it has its premiere at the London Proms concerts in 1969.

Then comes Mr. Davies the classical industry, producing relatively conventional concertos and string quartets by the yard.

Finally there is Mr. Davies the popular communicator, an aspect of his work that has always been present in music for children and amateurs but comes to the fore in orchestral scores like “Orkney Wedding With Sunrise” (a Boston Pops commission), whose accessibility and dramatic use of a solo bagpiper win it the rare status of a contemporary-music crowd pleaser.

Taken at a glance, this simplified career path might suggest the usual trajectory through which young radicals turn into old conservatives. And it certainly looked that way when Mr. Davies agreed to become master of the queen’s music, a 10-year job with few specific requirements beyond writing odd pieces for royal occasions but a definite sense of joining the establishment at its heart.

Some composers would not want to carry the baggage. But for Mr. Davies, he said, it was “a chance to communicate to a far larger audience than the usual one of new-music specialists.”

“I was interested to see if I could do it without resorting to jingoism,” he added. “It was a challenge. And even at my ripe age, I like challenges. I like being asked to do things I’ve never done before.”

In his first four years in office he produced four Christmas carols for the Chapel Royal, two pieces for the queen’s birthday, a smaller one for Prince Charles’s 60th and a big score for the anniversary of the end of World War II. It’s not a great amount, but it’s enough to be growing into a distinct body of work. He insists that he does not approach these official pieces with a different mind-set from that of his others.

“All my life I’ve written music at someone’s request for specific circumstances, whether it’s a film score for Ken Russell, a symphony for the Philharmonia or a quartet for Wigmore Hall,” he said. “Writing for the queen is no different. And every piece I write makes a statement: I mean it, and it’s me.

“I know people say I wear a lot of different masks. It’s even been said that behind the masks there’s nothing at all, which is naughty. But life brings so many possibilities of expression. I see no reason for not exploring them all — even a birthday piece for Prince Charles — so long as I can do so with integrity.”

So no artistic compromise? No silent turning of the stomach when the queen says, “How about a jolly fanfare for the Order of the Bath investiture next month?”

“She doesn’t say that,” Mr. Davies replied. “But what she did say when we first met, and I can quote her exact words, was: ‘You won’t be expected to do anything you don’t wish to do. Prince Philip and I wish to learn, and we hope you’ll be pleased to write as you feel fit.’ Which is exactly what’s happened. So far I’ve suggested everything I’ve done, and she’s said yes.”

You can’t quite see the queen relishing Mr. Davies’s “Eight Songs” for her loony ancestor. Indeed, you have to wonder whether she sat through performances of any of Mr. Davies’s music before his appointment.

“Probably not,” he said, “but she takes advice. And when she’s come to anything since, she’s been extremely gracious and appreciative. Reciprocally, I’ve kept her in mind as part of my challenge to address listeners who are genuinely interested in music but not specifically in the new. There’s no point writing something the queen or whoever will attend and giving them a rotten time.”

As for his interests in the wider world, Mr. Davies clearly does not consider himself shackled by status and remains as troublesome as ever in berating the British government for its philistinism and its foreign policy. But as he has discovered, public status brings public scrutiny, and the minutiae of his life as a remotely cloistered composer have a habit of making it into print.

One recent example came when he found a dead swan by his Orkney house and decided to cook it, only to have three policemen knock at the door with a warrant to search his refrigerator on the ground that British swans are the personal property of the monarch. As it turned out, he had committed no offense, because the swan was (a) from Canada and (b) dead. But it still made news, not least because, as he said, “I found the whole thing funny and invited the policemen in for some swan terrine, which rather horrified them. That was a mistake, wasn’t it?”

Far more serious is the abiding matter of the fraud, which came to light only after he had repeatedly tried to withdraw money from a cash machine and been told that his account was empty.

For 30 years all his affairs were entrusted to Judith and Michael Arnold, a married couple who not only managed his life but also acted like parents, even though they weren’t much older than Mr. Davies. The close relationship was known to everyone in British musical life. He dedicated scores to them. And all his works were cataloged with J numbers, the J standing for Judy.

But according to the charges, they robbed him blind to feed Mr. Arnold’s gambling addiction. And blind is the word. Asked how this could have happened over such a long period without his knowing, Mr. Davies said that he had given Mr. Arnold power of attorney over his finances, an extreme measure usually associated with physical or mental incapacity. “I didn’t want to be concerned with any of that,” Mr. Davies said. “My life was focused on music, not managing money.”

Having been charged with fraud, the Arnolds cannot comment on the proceedings. But Mr. Davies says that because of the power of attorney, he never knew how much he was earning, and assumed that it was far less than it actually was. He didn’t know that as master of the queen’s music he had a salary; he thought it was an honorary position. Most extraordinary of all, he didn’t realize that his house on Orkney had been mortgaged, an unpleasant surprise outweighing even the discovery that he owed large amounts to the Inland Revenue for unpaid taxes.

Coming to terms with all this was a devastating process, and not just because of the money. As it happens, a recurring theme of Mr. Davies’s work from its earliest days has been betrayal, a subject for which he found musical analogues in the parodies and popular dance tunes that exploded disorientingly into his work through the ’60s and ’70s. Now, he says, he has himself been roundly betrayed.

Once he finally got past it, he set about work with a vengeance. He produced an avalanche of new projects last year, including two big choral pieces, a piano quartet, a string trio, a violin sonata, a cello sonata ... the list runs on. For 2009 he is finishing a second violin concerto for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; working on “Kommilitonen!,” a politically engaged opera for students at the Juilliard School; and “thinking hard,” he said, about two separate orchestral scores that he knows will both be symphonies — Nos. 9 and 10 — because “I can hear the harmony and structure even at a distance.”

“No. 8, the last one,” he added, “was more a tone poem than a symphony, but these will be real. And big.”

All of that, he said, is “why I said to hold the celebrations till I’m 80.”

Michael White
The New York Times