McGill Brothers Headline “Triumph Over Adversity”

Peter Feher on February 9, 2021
Anthony and Demarre McGill perform with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra | Credit: Ed Spinelli

Brothers Anthony and Demarre McGill have made names for themselves on opposite sides of the country. Anthony, the New York Philharmonic’s principal clarinet since 2014, took his first big job in the city at the age of 25 as a principal with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Demarre, who’s had stints with the orchestras in Dallas, San Diego, and more, started playing principal flute with the Seattle Symphony in 2011.

Next week, putting time zones aside, the McGill brothers will present a series of programs for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. The Triumph Over Adversity Festival — three concerts Feb. 18–20, each online at 7 p.m. PT and available for free — expands on a theme essential to classical music today, and it’s in the title. But a lot had to come together before the festival could happen.

“It was the seed of an idea to do something,” says Tommy Phillips, the Philharmonic Society’s president and artistic director. He had been in touch with Anthony and Demarre recently in consideration for another series the Society produces, the annual Laguna Beach Music Festival. But Phillips’s in with the brothers goes back further, more than a decade, to when Phillips was director of artistic planning at the San Diego Symphony and Demarre was the orchestra’s principal flutist. Between then and now, Demarre’s group, The Myriad Trio, played programs for the Philharmonic Society, and Anthony came to Orange County with the New York Phil in 2016, for a concert presented by the Society.

The brothers had proposed a “loose” concept for Laguna Beach, Phillips remembers, but that festival ultimately went in a different direction. As the news in 2020 grew in urgency — the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice in the United States — Phillips describes the “current climate of events” as reaching a “tipping point,” in the arts not least of all. “We have these already underrepresented voices,” he says. “And this is at a time when voices [because of the pandemic] are not being heard at all.” He thought back to this initial-stages idea he and the McGills had discussed, so he said, “Let’s get this on paper, let’s really develop this.”

The result is this month’s Triumph Over Adversity Festival, with Anthony and Demarre as co-artistic directors. The format and programs took shape as the Philharmonic Society figured out, logistically, how to pull it off. The festival was originally set for fall 2020: the organization had considered flying both brothers out to Orange County, but the worsening pandemic situation made that plan untenable. So the solution to getting the festival and the urgency of its ideas out there was prerecorded programs. That means there’s a production element involved for the Philharmonic Society, different from, say, a livestream performance (the way the Society is presenting Joshua Bell in recital this week). There will be a live portion: Anthony and Demarre doing introductions and question-and-answer sessions around each concert. And in this case, prerecorded will be far from stale; on Monday, Phillips joked that the last recording was “being done today.”

The first festival program, Feb. 18, has the brothers playing separately, Anthony in New York and Demarre in Seattle, in a concert of works exclusively by Black composers. On Feb. 19, the brothers provide the introduction to a new performance by the Sphinx Virtuosi, whose parent organization Anthony and Demarre have both championed. The final program, Feb. 20, is all pieces previously commissioned by the brothers — works by James Lee III, Gabriela Lena Frank, Tyshawn Sorey, and more.

About the music they’ll be sharing, Anthony and Demarre say: “These programs will shine a light on the diversity, beauty, and excellence that are often neglected but vital and vibrant parts of today’s classical-music composition and performance scene.”

Each concert streams for free, and this is central to the Triumph Over Adversity concept. Phillips explains the decision grew out of an earlier vision for the festival, with performances in open-air public spaces — at parks, outside of churches, and so on. Online, not charging a price was a way to preserve that community spirit and deliver on the festival’s title, removing borders and obstacles to the music — in short, adversity.

And it continues a larger trend Phillips says he’s been seeing this season. Philharmonic Society concerts have reached audiences in 90 different countries. “We’ve been able to start thinking outside of Orange County, outside of California, outside the country.”