The program for this weekend's live-streamed concert by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Louis Langrée, seemed a bit odd on paper, with Schubert's evergreen "Unfinished" Symphony wedged between two modernist works by Black American composers Julia Perry and Anthony Davis. Yet it all seemed to work as a whole. New York Philharmonic principal clarinet Anthony McGill was a brilliant soloist for Davis' eclectic and darkly beautiful You Have the Right to Remain Silent.

Louis Langrée conducts the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra © Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Louis Langrée conducts the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
© Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Julia Perry (1924-1979) lived mostly in Ohio, after spending considerable time in Europe studying with Nadia Boulanger and Luigi Dallapiccola, and conducting many orchestras – all things that would have been denied her as a black woman in a segregated United States. Homonculus, C.F. is an experimental work for percussion ensemble, with harp and piano, based on an episode from Goethe's Faust, in which a living creature (the homonculus) is brought to life through alchemy. Perry's musical "test tube baby" is wrought at first from taps on wood block, snare drum, bass drum, with thickening texture as the harp and piano build on the Chord of the Fifteenth ("C.F."), a succession of superimposed thirds, up to the fifteenth from the bass note. The music is assembled bit by bit, an experiment in itself that ends suddenly as the homonculus is born, all in less than seven minutes.

Franz Schubert's Unfinished was something of a disappointment on this adventurous program. It was musically just fine, with flexible phrasing, and a gentleness of spirit. But with a full wind and brass complement set behind reduced and widely spaced string sections, the balances didn't mesh. It appeared that each player (or at least most) had individual microphones; the mixed output sounded like a group of individuals rather than cohesive sections, undoing what was likely an expressive performance in person.

Anthony McGill © Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Anthony McGill
© Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Anthony Davis' four-movement You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007), a clarinet concerto that derives its title from the Miranda warning, a notification customarily given by police to criminal suspects in police custody advising them of their right to silence; that is, their right to refuse to answer questions or provide information to law enforcement or other officials, without consulting an attorney. As in his other works, Davis seamlessly mixes modernist techniques with jazz, hip-hop, and other popular idioms. The solo clarinet plays the role of the accused, performed with supreme brilliance by Anthony McGill, both on clarinet and contra-alto clarinet. The words of the Miranda warning are spoken by the members of the chamber orchestra and the words' spoken rhythm becomes musical rhythm. Kurzweil synthesizer virtuoso Earl Howard melted his electronic textures into the mass of sound. McGill was called upon to improvise passages during the work; it was not possible to determine what was improvised and what was pre-composed. The second movement "Loss" gives a nod to jazz great Charles Mingus, morphing to a swing tempo. The fourth movement is reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein's dance rhythms. A lamenting solo clarinet ends a work that represents both torment and resilience.

Anthony McGill played a short solo encore on a darkened stage: his own deeply affecting arrangement of America the Beautiful, in which he changes the tune from major to minor tonality and ends the song on the next-to-last note, depriving us of finality. 


This performance was reviewed from the CSO video stream

Watch the video here