McGill’s free and stylish playing highlights MOB’s Mozart program

By Katherine Buzard, Chicago Classical Review
March 01, 2022

Music of the Baroque welcomed Chicago native Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, for an all-Mozart program at the Harris Theater Monday night. Music director Dame Jane Glover, one of the world’s preeminent Mozart scholars, was in her element, leading the orchestra with precision and grace.

The program opened with the Overture to Mozart’s opera Lucio Silla, composed at the tender age of 16. The curtain-raiser is unusual in its three-section structure, foreshadowing the young composer’s symphonic ambitions.

Glover led the orchestra in a pristine if rather polite rendition of this early Mozart work. Given the piece’s function as an opera overture, Glover could have heightened the drama of her interpretation with greater dynamic contrasts, particularly in the demonstrative opening fanfare figure. After reading the program note detailing the opera’s rocky premiere—in which the audience waited for the Archduke to arrive three hours for the before the opera could begin—one could imagine that this performance of the overture would have been an anticlimax for the restless opera-goers.

It was a refreshing contrast then to hear Anthony McGill in one of Mozart’s final works, his Clarinet Concerto in A Major—not only because of the greater expressive palette of late Mozart, but also because of McGill’s stylish playing and musical spontaneity.

There is a physicality to McGill’s playing that is very engaging, his body almost seeming like an extension of the instrument. McGill was immediately impressive with his perfect articulation, stylish phrasing, and seamless shifts in range. Because the clarinetist for whom Mozart composed this piece, Anton Stadler, relished playing in the instrument’s low range, these extreme shifts were frequent, and McGill always executed them elegantly.

In the sublime Adagio McGill’s pianissimo playing was most affecting, particularly in his soft and slightly slower reprise of the opening theme. If not so exquisitely performed, the slow tempo might have been considered indulgent. Here, McGill brought a feeling of spontaneity to the music-making that was exciting while staying within stylistic bounds. The electricity of the intense communication between McGill and Glover was palpable in the virtuosic final movement, as if the music were being composed in the moment.

McGill’s performance seemed to draw the best out of the orchestra as well. Their playing was equally expressive and accomplished, and they were consistently in perfect balance with the soloist. In the slow movement especially, their sound was warm and enveloping.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor was heard in the second half of the program. Bounding onto the stage after intermission, Glover began the famous symphony before some patrons had returned to their seats. The afterglow of McGill’s freely expressive playing seemed to have an effect on the orchestra and conductor, as their interpretation and playing were looser and less studied.

Conducting from memory, Glover’s gestures were precise and evocative, perfectly encapsulating the contrasting textures and weights throughout, particularly in the Andante. The anguished Minuet was heavy without being ponderous, while the woodwinds and horns were luminous in the Trio. Glover captured the playfulness of the opening salvo of the finale and led the orchestra to a rousing conclusion.

Before the concert, city officials presented executive director Declan McGovern with a civic proclamation declaring January 23, 2022— MOB’s 50th anniversary—“Music of the Baroque Day” in Chicago.

The program will be available on demand starting Friday on the MOB website. Nicholas Kraemer conducts the next program, with soprano Amanda Forsythe, featuring music of Purcell, Handel and Haydn March 20-21.