Aspen Music Fest: For McDuffie, it’s rock-star season
July 22, 2010
ASPEN – The conversation ran through body piercings and tattoos; synthesizers; the upcoming 30-day tour that coincides with the release of the music video and the CD; David Bowie, Eminem and Slash.
No, Robert McDuffie has not plugged in and gone rock ‘n’ roll, but he is treading on unusual ground for a concert violinist. His latest project features both a composer and a title that have rock-star status, and concertgoers have been giving it the appropriate reception.
The composer is Philip Glass, who has collaborated and shared a studio with David Bowie; the piece is “The American Four Seasons,” a take-off on Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” said to be the most frequently recorded piece of music in history. The concerto, which had its world premiere in December in Toronto, has also been performed in London and Rome. McDuffie said the reception has stopped just short of fans lifting their lighters and demanding an encore.
“It was as if John Lennon had come back,” McDuffie said of the Toronto premiere, which Glass attended. “They would not stop yelling for him, before and after the concert. Each of us, on stage, knew it was an event. If it had failed, you would have heard a lot of coughing. Instead, during the piece, there was a powerful silence that you could feel.”
“The American Four Seasons” – which McDuffie recorded with conductor Marin Alsop and the London Symphony Orchestra, and is due for release in October – has its U.S. premiere Thursday at Harris Hall. The recital includes portions of Bartok’s 44 Duos for Two Violins and Mozkowski’s Suite for Two Violins and Piano, and concludes with a small orchestra, comprising strings and synthesizer, playing the 40-minute, four-movement “American Four Seasons.”
The project began with several elements: McDuffie’s affection for Vivaldi’s original “Four Seasons”; his desire to work with Glass; and his ambition to create a project that would give the violinist a measure of control over his career. McDuffie also wanted to welcome all kinds of listeners into the concert hall, and he had seen, when playing Glass’ first violin concerto, that the Glass name had an unusual attraction for audiences outside the classical mainstream.
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“I wanted to see more pierced body parts. More tatts. I love seeing that. I think that’s cool. And the subscribers, the bluebloods, loved it as well. Because it’s very audience-friendly,” McDuffie said.
In 2002, McDuffie – who had first met Glass in 1998, when the violinist was preparing to make a recording of the first concerto – floated the idea of creating a spin-off of Vivaldi’s work. “I came to him and told him that I thought he was America’s Vivaldi. And that Vivaldi was Italy’s Philip Glass,” McDuffie – who, like Glass, is a former student at the Aspen Music School – said. “He loved that. It was catchy. Show biz. He told me, ‘I want to do this. I believe in this.'”
That enthusiasm, however, didn’t translate into immediate action. For years, McDuffie heard nothing from the composer. But McDuffie didn’t give up – or rather, couldn’t give up. His teenage daughter, a huge David Bowie fan, knew of the Bowie-Glass connection, and pushed her dad to follow through with the project. Meanwhile, Glass was developing a romance with a cellist, Wendy Sutter, and, not coincidentally as McDuffie sees it, deepening his interest in composing music for strings.
“I think we caught him at the right time, because he’s madly in love with a cellist and he’s making great music for strings,” McDuffie said.
But McDuffie didn’t want just the latter-day Philip Glass; he also wanted the Glass who made his mark early on by being experimental and edgy in his choice of mediums, collaborators and instruments. As he says on a video about “The American Four Seasons” – a video which includes a clip of Slash, the Guns ‘n’ Roses guitarist, riffing on Vivaldi – McDuffie wanted “the indigenous rock ‘n’ roll Philip Glass that turned David Bowie on.”
Thus, the new work features a synthesizer and other elements that reach out to the audience in a way that most classical music does not. McDuffie said the synthesizer is “part of the mosaic in the first movement. It floats. But then it starts to rock in the third movement.” And he said the concerto as a whole is “seductive. And it rocks. Those are the two words that come to mind. And it’s manipulative, in the best sense of the word.
“But I love Mr. Glass’ music, and we weren’t selling souls here. When I played it through for him the first time, in New York, when I finished the second movement, he said, ‘I can’t believe I wrote something so beautiful.’ He hit a home run.”
“The American Four Seasons,” though, isn’t being treated in a precious manner. With the assistance of his manager, Tim Fox, McDuffie is going big with “The American Four Seasons.” From mid-October through mid-November, McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra will be on tour in the fashion of a pop act, playing most every night, with stops from Carnegie Hall and Disney Hall to the Johnson County Community College in Overland, Kan. The program pairs Vivaldi’s and Glass’ concertos. There are additional dates set for later in the year and in 2011, from Mexico City to Nashville to Poznan, Poland. About the only thing missing are black concert T-shirts.
Even with that marketing oversight, McDuffie hopes that “The American Four Seasons” captures the public’s imagination. McDuffie has exclusive rights to the concerto for three years; after that, he hopes to hear the melody pop up everywhere, as if it were “Stairway to Heaven.”
“I didn’t want to create a new piece and then put it on the shelf. I wanted a piece that would endure, and bring in an audience,” McDuffie, a fan of REM, Jay Z and the new Eminem album, said. “I’d be so jazzed if hundreds of violinists played it afterwards.”