A soprano withdraws yet the Celebrity Series show goes on with McGill and Huang

March 14, 2022 at 12:33 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Myra Huang performed Sunday afternoon at Calderwood Hall for the Celebrity Series.

“This is a classic case of the show must go on,” Celebrity Series CEO Gary Dunning told the crowd packed into GBH’s Calderwood Studio on Sunday afternoon.

Soprano Susanna Phillips awoke that morning with laryngitis, forcing her to withdraw from an anticipated joint recital with clarinetist Anthony McGill. Rather than forfeit the concert outright, McGill added two short works by Robert Schumann and James Lee III to complement his planned solo program of William Grant Still and Franz Schubert. Accompanied by pianist Myra Huang, the last-minute recital, if slight, still managed to deliver musical rewards.

What had been an intriguing vocal-instrumental program centered around Schubert’s Shepherd On the Rock and Lee’s Chavah’s Daughter’s Speak became one of soulful reflection. In their place, McGill offered the latter’s Ad Anah? as a contemplation for our troubled times.

Lee has consistently explored spiritual themes, with his Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2019, expressing elements from his Seventh Day Adventist faith. But Ad Anah? examines biblical subjects through a modern lens. Taking an Old Testament lament as its source, the work for clarinet and piano muses upon lingering injustice.

Though lush and tuneful on the surface, Ad Anah? is music of the moment, at once sorrowful and quietly fervent. Piano and clarinet engage in poignant conversation over its ten-minute span. Wisps of melody spread across the keyboard, swelling intently before fading. Trills from the clarinet unfold into brisk flourishes before flowering into sweeping phrases. The parts finally come together in a moment of calm, though the title’s vexing question remains unresolved.

McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, has a way of embodying the sounds he creates. Each note seemed to grow from the inside out. Phrases sounded at whisper’s edge while managing to carry the intensity forward. Huang proved a sensitive partner, her soft touch revealing the delicacies of Lee’s textures.

Still’s Romance was just as sumptuous. Originally scored for saxophone and piano, the six-minute work bears the melancholy of a jazz ballad. McGill’s transcription, heard Sunday, takes on even darker shades.

The clarinetist outlined the pentatonic melody with the gentle swagger of a blues singer. Huang’s accompaniment carried weight without being heavy, and the two joined in a plaintive cry in the work’s peroration.

Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73, which opened the recital, was surprisingly whimsical. Each movement found McGill and Huang in a playful exchange, the music dancing urgently before fading in breathy cadences. But the duo brought greater heft in the finale to reveal its dramatic tension.

Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D. 821 proved the afternoon’s virtuosic spectacle. The only substantial work written for the arpeggione—a kind of bowed guitar—this sonata is usually  heard in an arrangement for cello and piano. In this version for  clarinet, the setting does not always fit snuggly under the fingers as continuous wide leaps demand supreme control.

Yet McGill made the music sound natural and idiomatic. He struck a fine balance with Huang in all the right moments, her spacious opening phrases setting the stage for the clarinetist to bring dimension to each line.

The outer movements are like a series of character pieces, where the instruments explore a range of moods. McGill and Huang conveyed every humorous turn while gracefully trading phrases with each other.

The Adagio is one of Schubert’s most beautiful movements, and McGill shaped it with soft, yet powerful urgency. The Allegretto flowed in a perfect combination of lyricism and precision.

Following the recital, McGill publicly thanked Huang, who, he said, had never played some of this music before Sunday. The ovation made it clear that her resplendent performance was no small feat.

The Celebrity Series will present Brooklyn Rider and mandolinist Avi Avital in music by Boccherini, Sollima, Shaw, Jacobsen, and Assad 8 p.m. Friday at GBH’s Calderwood Studio. celebrityseries.org

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