As far as one can tell, Tuesday night’s performance at the 92Y was the first in one of New York’s traditional concert venues since the beginning of the pandemic. There have been others – outside or in acoustically improper spaces – but this was the first to rekindle a link to what seems a remote past. The distanced listeners showed their enthusiasm, whole-heartedly applauding clarinetist Anthony McGill when he delivered a few introductory words.

Anthony McGill
© Eric Rudd Photography

Principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera before taking up the same position with the New York Philharmonic, McGill has always shown a great deal of interest in playing chamber music with a variety of colleagues. The 92Y programme was quite symmetrical, two Schubert works bookending two much more recent pieces by American composers. Soprano Susanna Phillips joined McGill and pianist Myra Huang for two works, specifically written for clarinet, while the other two were originally meant to be interpreted on the now forgotten arpeggione or the alto sax.

Over time, the arpeggione in Schubert’s Sonata D.821 has been replaced by both woodwinds and string instruments, leading to different timbral balances. Rendered by McGill and Huang, the music sounded glorious, the pianist following without fail the rubatos that McGill inserted into his fluid phrases. The Lied-evoking melancholy of the opening was less evident than it could have been, and the music of the Adagio, taken at a slower pace, lost some of its tension, but McGill’s lustrous sound and dynamic range were outstanding.

The evening’s great surprise came with Chavah's Daughters Speak, a world premiere by James Lee III commissioned by 92Y. The cycle of five songs is set to poems by Sister Lou Ella Hickman who, in a volume entitled she: robed and wordless, has tried to shed light on the inner life of several biblical women. Unfortunately, the texts were not made available to the public (there were no programme notes whatsoever) and one could – alas – distinguish only a few of Hickman’s poetical images in Phillips’ rendition. Including what seemed to be reminiscences of Britten’s vocal music, exploring in detail the potential interplay between voice, clarinet and piano, Lee’s work proved the author’s compositional mastery. The score is fairly varied, including contemplative and forceful segments, with the clarinet and the piano having their own solo moments and evoking a large gamut of sounds from syrinx to percussion-like. Phillips continues to possess the luminous voice that impressed me ten years ago, when I heard her for the first time, singing Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder at the Marlboro Festival. The voice now has a few rough patches, but the soprano used her instrument with elegance and a lot of sensitivity.

After a pleasant but inconsequential intermezzo in the form of a Romance for clarinet and piano composed by William Grant Still, the performance ended with a rendition of Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, Schubert’s three-section song where – atypically – the leading role is shared between voice and clarinet, with the latter announcing the first, generous theme and the former only taking it over much later. Phillips beautifully shaped her phrases, but occasionally struggled projecting the text. The mournful middle section, evoking Caspar David Friedrich’s solitary characters, was heartfully rendered. From the solemn and misleading introduction to the very end, Huang’s accompaniment was neither submissive nor assertive but always accurate. Composed during the last months of Schubert’s short life, The Shepherd on the Rock ends with a touching optimism, clarinet and soprano echoing each other. Wilhelm Müller’s last verses “Now I must make ready/ To wander forth” may very well resonate with our current desire to (re)explore.