In 1973, a 14-year-old Georgia violin student was taken, perhaps a little reluctantly, to hear Itzhak Perlman. “Up to that point, I didn’t like practicing,” recalls Robert McDuffie. “But seeing Itzhak Perlman changed me. The violin became my passion and priority.” Though McDuffie went back-stage to meet Perlman on that revelatory evening, the teen was too abashed to approach the renowned string master.
Today, Perlman and McDuffie have been communing in the same poker club for 30 years and, at this point, are longtime friends. The story of how a shy, southern, high-school basketball player joined the kinship of classical music superstars follows a somewhat traditional path, decidedly marked by unique byways carved out by the artist himself.
A Macon native, McDuffie was introduced to the violin at age six by his mother, a pianist. He was not initially an enthusiastic musical student, but found, “though I didn’t love practicing, I Ioved applause,” he chuckles. Once inspired by a great performer, though, the teenager’s virtuosity bloomed and he moved to New York after being accepted as a student at the Juilliard School.
Following his graduation, McDuffie’s career rapidly gathered momentum. He has been appearing since the 1980s as soloist with most of the leading orchestras on five continents. In addition to a dizzying calendar of globe-spanning live performances, the Grammy-nominated artist has made time to create acclaimed Telarc and EMI concerto recordings.
Recognized worldwide as one of the most gifted interpreters of Vivaldi, McDuffie’s talent and musical gusto have overflowed into entrepreneurial endeavors. In 2003, he co-founded the Rome Chamber Music Festival, one of the Eternal City’s premier, sell-out cultural events, for which he is also artistic director. In 2007, McDuffie founded the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University in his hometown of Macon. The elite conservatory offers a distinctive program that prepares exceptional string students to excel as performers and as competent business
managers of their personal brands.
McDuffie continues to embrace his southern roots. “I’m from the hometown of Otis Redding and Little Richard,” he notes proudly. “I sang in the church choir with (R.E.M. cofounder and bassist) Mike Mills and our families were close.” That enduring connection led Mills to compose Concerto for Violin, Rock Band, and String Orchestra for McDuffie. The two premiered the work in 2016 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, followed by a successful, 14-city, genre-blurring US tour.
It was at the Boulder Colorado Music Festival a couple of years later that McDuffie crossed paths with Philharmonic artistic advisor, Alberto Gutierrez. This sparked a longer conversation about McDuffie coming to Colorado Springs to perform. In February, McDuffie will perform a program entitled Eight Seasons that combines the enduring and exalted Four Seasons by Vivaldi, paired with the American Four Seasons. The latter composition was written for McDuffie in 1992 by his friend, collaborator, and famed American composer, Philip Glass. This led to a 30-city US tour that established Eight Seasons as an ongoing, in-demand program world-wide.
McDuffie promises, “The audience is going to have a really sweet experience. I’m in love with every note of both these pieces. It will take them to a different place.”
And we can hardly wait for you to transport us, Mr. McDuffie.