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‘Classical music has a long way to go’ - clarinettist Anthony McGill performs powerful tribute to Black lives

18 November 2020, 15:05 | Updated: 26 November 2020, 09:23

Clarinettist Anthony McGill
Clarinettist Anthony McGill. Picture: Chris Lee / New York Philharmonic

By Rosie Pentreath

McGill performs Anthony Davis’ orchestral work, ‘You have the right to remain silent’ with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in this online concert.

Watch clarinettist Anthony McGill’s powerful performance of a piece of music addressing Black struggle and identity in America.

The piece he is performing, You have the right to remain silent, is by US composer Anthony Davis, and explores the Miranda warning – the notification US police give suspects in custody – and Davis’ own experiences of being stopped and interrogated by police (watch below).

Reflecting on his performance of the piece for clarinet and orchestra at this particular moment in time, McGill says, “I hope that society has learned that this violence has to stop. I hope that enough people have seen what is happening and decided they need to do something to fix this problem.

“Hopefully there are more people now desiring to learn about history and take action against racism and hate.”

Read more: ‘We cannot remain silent’ – musicians protest against George Floyd’s death and police brutality >

Also reflecting on the year that’s been, composer Anthony Davis says: “As an African-American man I’m not sure what society has learned.

“There have been so many of these examples, you would think we would have learned from Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, or Breonna Taylor.

“I think the George Floyd incident galvanised people around the world to realise that Black lives are in jeopardy, that justice and the police don’t act fairly, and that Black lives are not valued the ways white lives are valued.”

When it comes to classical music and diversity and inclusion, both Anthony McGill and Anthony Davis feel classical music has a long way to go.

Read more: Cellist performs heartrending version of ‘Dido’s Lament’ in honour of George Floyd >

“We all saw the responses from almost every institution after the murder of George Floyd; statements about embracing diversity and not accepting this in our society,” Davis says.

“We’ll see if their actions extend beyond tokenism; we need an ongoing re-examination of the canon, and what qualifies music to be in the canon.”

The composer feels it also means an aesthetic change, and that we shouldn’t accept musical divisions – for example, between “classical” music and jazz, say, or between other genres.

Read more: Wynton Marsalis – ‘Jazz anticipated this moment’ >

McGill adds: “I think classical music is trying but I do believe it has a long way to go. The field has talked about diversity for a long time but the actions haven’t always been concrete or consistent. I hope and believe this time is different.”

“These issues won’t be solved in my lifetime,” Davis concedes. “We just have to make sure we make some progress. I hope my children and my grandchildren are in a better position than I am, and I should be in a better place than my parents.”

Watch Anthony McGill perform You have the right to remain silent in full in a streamed concert from Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on Sunday 22 November at 01:00 GMT (20:00 EST).