We’ve come a long way since satirist H. L. Mencken painted the South as a cultural wasteland in his critical 1917 essay “The Sahara of the Bozart” — just take Georgia native and internationally heralded violinist Robert McDuffie for instance. McDuffie, who was born and raised just “down the road” in Macon, Ga. (“don’t make fun of me,” he warns), will be performing at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts on Friday, Nov. 19 at 8 p.m.
McDuffie has been playing the violin since a young age, but he didn’t immediately recognize that music was his passion. He explains that his mother, who played the piano, was the one who had to encourage him to practice.
“I hated the practice,” he said in an interview with the Wheel
. “But I loved the applause. I was passionate about applause from about the age of seven, but I didn’t know much about making music and the power of music.”
It wasn’t until McDuffie was 14 years old that he became passionate about music in a “healthier” way. He recalls a memory from high school when he was supposed to be starting in a basketball game after having been promoted to a higher team, but his parents instead brought him to see a concert by Itzhak Perlman, a famous Latin violinist (and one whom McDuffie had never heard of at the time) who was performing in Macon that night.
“I went kicking and screaming,” McDuffie said. “I was so mad that I sat in the second row by myself and made them sit in the back, and I was just furious.”
But seeing this concert became a turning point for McDuffie.
“Once he started to play, that was the defining moment for me. I’d never heard anything so beautiful in my life,” he said. “And that was it, that was when I realized I was going to be a musician. And I didn’t give a damn about basketball after that.”
McDuffie later attended the Juilliard School and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1990. In addition to performing, McDuffie also started the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University, which is a highly selective program that seeks to provide conservatory-level training and a well-rounded academic education to aspiring musicians.
“At the end of the day, teaching will be the most important thing that I do,” he said.
This Friday, McDuffie will be performing “American Four Seasons,” a piece specifically written for him by Philip Glass.
“I asked him to write an American ‘Four Seasons’ for me to re-imagine the same as Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons,’” he explained. “It’s just a privilege, an absolute privilege that he wrote this piece for me.”
Glass has been recognized as one of the most influential composers of recent times, and according to McDuffie, his music often features a twinge of rock and roll so that one wouldn’t need to be a classical music fan to enjoy his work.
The world premiere of the composition, which has been described in the Buffalo News as “the most beautiful music, by far, to come from [Glass] in at least a decade,” was presented by McDuffie in December. The performance at Emory will mark the Atlanta premiere as well as the final destination in a 28-city tour.
“We’re exhausted, but we’re loving playing every night,” McDuffie said. “I think you’ll get that sense. Even though it’s our 28th concert, [the symphony players] still love the piece. I certainly feel that way.”
Proceeds from the Emory performance will benefit the School of Medicine’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC), where McDuffie’s father-in-law Mack Taylor was a patient for more than 10 years. The concert is jointly dedicated to Taylor and the doctors who worked with him.
“It’s meaningful to us as a family because my father-in-law was treated by Dr. Levey for 15 years, which is one of the reasons we’re so appreciative for what he did and the center.”
This event, which will include a dinner, a short speech from McDuffie and the concert itself, is titled “A Family Affair” to emphasize the impact that the disease can have on the family as a whole and not just on the individual victim.
McDuffie seeks to bring awareness through his performance to the work being done at the ADRC, which is one of the foremost Alzheimer’s research centers in the Southeast and the only one in the state to be funded by the National Institute of Aging.
Taylor was also a musician who played the piano before his condition negatively impacted his abilities.
“We’re celebrating seasons. There are different seasons of life, and people who suffer Alzheimer’s — well, whatever season it is, it’s the wrong season,” McDuffie said.
McDuffie explains that Emory as the location for the final stop holds much personal significance for him. In addition to the family’s ties to the ADRC, McDuffie’s wife is from Atlanta, and his daughter is a student in the College.
“It’s the final stop, and it’s very important,” he said. “There’s so many threads that will culminate in the Atlanta performance, so that’s why it’s going to be a very meaningful and relevant concert to me — not just another stop in another city.”
— Contact Catherine Cai.