Breaking the Glass Ceiling

July 24, 2019

by Marc Shulgold

Back in his student days at Juilliard learning to play the violin, Robert McDuffie and friends enjoyed sharing their mutual dislike for the numbingly redundant music of Philip Glass. “I was not a Glass fan,” he recalled. “None of us were. We knew all the jokes.” He then quoted one of his favorites. “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Philip Glass. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Philip Glass. Knock, knock…”

Years later, the Georgia native confronted his old nemesis once again. “My wife and I were sitting on the floor drinking wine, listening to (Gidon) Kremer’s recording of the First (Glass) Concerto. And she said to me, ‘You’ve got to learn this piece.’  As we listened, I knew I was going to embrace it.”

McDuffie changed his tune, so to speak. While working on the piece with Glass, he mentioned falling in love with it through Kremer’s CD.

“Funny thing was, Philip said he hated that recording, because the triangle was out of rhythm. This was an important work for him. He wrote it in 1987, and it was his first purely orchestral piece.”

McDuffie will play that First Concerto on Thursday, August 1, with music director Peter Oundjian on the podium. Last summer, Festival followers first recognized the violinist’s late-blooming love for Glass, when he played the composer’s Second Concerto. Known as The American Four Seasons, it was written for McDuffie, who premiered it in 2010 with Oundjian in Toronto. “I’d asked Philip to write it for me,” the violinist said, adding that he’d come up with the idea for an update of those famous Four Seasons Baroque concertos. “I told him ‘You’re America’s Vivaldi.’ Everyone always said that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times.” Apparently, Glass didn’t take that sly remark as a put-down.

Besides the challenge of keeping all those dizzying, repeating arpeggios straight, McDuffie recognized a serious problem with the First Concerto. “The orchestral writing is very thick, and it’s hard for the violin to come through. So I thought of using a wireless mic.” Some composers might be offended by such a suggestion, but not Glass. “He’s a Buddhist, so nothing bothers him.”

Don’t get the idea that McDuffie’s subtle use of amplification is leading him toward the world of rock ‘n’ roll. Well, on second thought, it looks like he’s already gone there. “A couple of years ago, Mike Mills wrote a concerto for me, a Concerto with rock band. I use a mic for that, as well.” Yes, that Mike Mills. Back in his childhood days in Macon, Georgia, the violinist had been close friends with Mills, the former bass player with the superstar band R.E.M. The two old buddies have been touring the piece, with hopes, McDuffie said, of bringing it to Chautauqua in the future. No surprise that the Concerto has attracted younger audiences, particularly R.E.M. fans. “We have to connect with a wider culture,” the violinist said. “There’s an elitism about classical music that’s kept us boxed in.”

When he’s not traveling the world as a busy soloist, McDuffie divides his time between two pet projects, the Rome (Italy) Chamber Music Festival, which he founded 16 years ago, and the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings, established with co-director Amy Schwartz Moretti in 2007. He’s particularly proud of the Center, based in his hometown of Macon, Georgia. “Something about the romanticism of working in my hometown. I’ve got family members who still live in Macon,” he said.

The Center is part of the Townsend School of Music at Mercer University, and is described by McDuffie as “a fast-track conservatory.” Enrollment is limited to 26 hand-picked students, who engage in intensive study with a faculty of 13 seasoned professionals, including two with Colorado roots: sisters Julie and Rebecca Albers, members of a prominent musical family in Longmont.

Classes at the Center naturally revolve around instrument practice and lessons, but they also include practical courses in the business of music. Graduating students will be more than adept at playing their instruments – but they need to be ready for a career in the competitive concert world, he stressed. “The more control musicians have over their destiny, the better. I wanted to create something high-level in my lifetime. I do hope we set a template for other (training) programs.”

The serene, rural landscape of Mercer and Macon helps create a positive learning environment for students (“They catch on, looking at the landscape,” he said). For McDuffie, however, the distraction of all that necessary administrative work in Rome and Macon can occasionally fog the mind. His solution? “Sometimes I’ll play through the Beethoven (Concerto) on my own, just to get inspired once again.”

Robert McDuffie will be soloist in the First Violin Concerto of Philip Glass, with Peter Oundjian and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 1 in Chautauqua Auditorium. The program also includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6. Information: (303) 440-7666 or coloradomusicfestival.org.

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