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Busy Curtis grad whose pace is ever allegro

NEW YORK - Just because Anthony McGill collaborates with the greatest living opera stars doesn't mean that he ever sees them. The coprincipal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera might glimpse Renée Fleming at the corners of the stage, depending on how much he cranes his neck.

NEW YORK - Just because Anthony McGill collaborates with the greatest living opera stars doesn't mean that he ever sees them. The coprincipal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera might glimpse Renée Fleming at the corners of the stage, depending on how much he cranes his neck.

"I love playing in the Met opera pit. It has the best sound. But clarinets and bassoons have the worst seats in the opera house," the 31-year-old Curtis graduate said backstage at the Met last week.

No wonder he works so hard to see daylight.

The Met orchestra plays twice as much as symphony orchestras - the repertoire can be Wagnerian in length (literally) and performances (split with his coprincipal) are six days a week. Nevertheless, McGill seems insatiable: He'll play Beethoven at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society's 25th anniversary gala Wednesday at the Kimmel Center and Mozart's Clarinet Concerto with Symphony in C Saturday at Camden's Gordon Theater.

And those add-ons can't touch the logistical complexities of his teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, or, next month, touring Europe to play Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire with Mitsuko Uchida. Somewhere in there, he has a girlfriend.

"I could say 'no' more often," he concedes.

Not that Met general manager Peter Gelb would encourage him to. He believes strongly that Met musicians should pursue a "rich environment" of chamber music and orchestral concerts that are surprisingly possible between opera performances.

"He's a terrific member of the orchestra," Gelb adds.

Strangely, stress doesn't show on McGill, even when performing at the inauguration of President Obama. His rich clarinet tone - particularly as heard on his self-titled debut CD - has a consistently smooth legato, and when the music calls for it, his playing has the kind of serenity that seems to stand slightly outside of the world at large. In conversation, he projects a similar calm, which could be mistaken for complacency but is anything but.

The elusive aesthetic core that he pursues says a lot about his playing. It's one thing to cut out the expressive swells on every note - a technique common among clarinetists and one he grew up with, but another to replace it with the clearly molded musical narrative that has become one of his hallmarks. "To tell the story, you can't get into every note individually," he says. "You have to tell the story over 10 or 20 notes."

In contrast to the soulful, glamorous portrait photos on his glossy website,, he talks about how he's practicing scales again, that his legato is maybe a weak point he needs to work on, and how he's awestruck serving on an audition committee at the Juilliard School with many of the clarinet gods he grew up hearing.

His sonic resemblance to his Met predecessor, Ricardo Morales, now principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, isn't an accident. The two have known each other since McGill was a teenager.

"Ricardo has a very beautiful voice," says McGill. "I always tried to find exactly what was really amazing about each successful player and tried to figure out what that was. Even now when I go to a concert I look for the things I can steal and call my own."

Though in his seventh season at the Met, he keeps having what he calls life-changing experiences, including one late last year playing Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande under Simon Rattle. "Some experiences are so vibrant . . . I carry it with me. It didn't disappear after the final note. It changed who I am as a musician."

That's one indication why an opera musician's life is in some ways more intensive than those of his symphony orchestra counterparts: Rather than changing programs every week after three or four performances, opera orchestras play music in repertoire, often as many as 10 performances, with several days in between for the music to sink in. And in recent years, the succession of guest conductors at the Met has been remarkable, including Riccardo Muti, Daniel Barenboim and, among the young, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

And Met music director James Levine? "We learn so much from having him here," McGill says, even in the face of Levine's many ailments, which finally prompted him to resign from the Boston Symphony Orchestra last week.

McGill first set foot in the Met orchestra pit at age 19 - it was simply a visit arranged by Morales, with whom he has studied - in just one indication of his fast rise from his upbringing on Chicago's South Side to musical boot camp at the Interlochen Arts Academy and then four years at the Curtis Institute. McGill also won a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant and moved from Philadelphia (a city he considers a second home) to a position in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra before landing at the Met.

As one of the few African American woodwind players in a major orchestra, he has felt a certain amount of racism. Dealing with it, he says, involves walking a fine line between acknowledging its presence - and not.

"You have to go through life not really ignoring it, but kind of. If you're absorbed with what everyone thinks about you, you'd be crippled," he said. "At Curtis, there were always a couple of us every year. We all know each other and supported each other but because we're practicing so much, none of us were sitting down to think about how black we are . . . and when I look at the experiences my parents had and their generation, I've had it easy!"

McGill appreciated that all over again while attending last month's Curtis Symphony Orchestra gala at Carnegie Hall. "I saw three young black players in the orchestra, and I have to say . . . I felt really proud that they played so beautifully!"

Anthony McGill in Performance

Anthony McGill will take part in the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society's 25th- anniversary celebration concert Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theatre. Limited ticket availability.

McGill performs Mozart's Clarinet Concerto with Symphony in C on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts. 856-963-6683 or