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Robert McDuffie
Robert McDuffie, the virtuoso violinist from Macon, gave a stirring performance of Brahms' only violin concerto in Thursday's virtual concert from Symphony Hall. (Photo courtesy Atlanta Symphony Orchestra)

Review: Macon violinist Robert McDuffie joins Spano and ASO for spirited concert

The music of Johannes Brahms triumphantly returned to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a streamed concert devoted to the great German Romantic composer. Recorded April 13–15 and premiered online April 29, the event featured Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (his only violin concerto) and the beautiful Serenade No. 2. The concert also fielded a very welcome return for one of the ASO’s most popular visitors, violin virtuoso extraordinaire Robert McDuffie. It was a sheer delight to have him back.

Before the music began, music director Robert Spano sat down for an affectionate interview about McDuffie (rather charmingly referred to as “Bobby”) with Sameed Afghani, the orchestra’s vice president and general manager. Spano praised McDuffie’s inestimable contribution as an ambassador for music, particularly for his impact on Georgia’s musical culture through the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University. It is important, Spano highlighted, to make music with the “people in the room.”

That said, McDuffie is one of the true international celebrities in classical music today (not to mention his intriguing interfaces with such popular icons as Gregg Allman, Mike Mills of R.E.M., and Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones). He could not have found a more effective showcase than the stunning Brahms concerto. Composed in 1878, the piece was tailored to the abilities of Brahms’ friend and frequent collaborator, violinist Joseph Joachim, who probably created the first movement cadenza that is still used today.

The work is interesting in that while it certainly offers the soloist opportunities for pyrotechnical display, the violin is incorporated into the overall orchestral fabric in a manner unusual for instrumental concertos (which spurred conductor Hans van Bülow to famously remark that the concerto was not so much “for” the violin as “against” it). Although audiences loved the piece straightaway, critics were less convinced. Even such luminaries as the great violinist Henryk Wieniawski dismissed it as “unplayable.” Suffice it to say, McDuffie’s performance gave the lie to Wieniawski’s assessment, and his musical affinity with Spano’s overarching leadership was palpable.

McDuffie announced himself directly with a passionate entry into the initial Allegro non troppo. There was a sense of graceful pathos throughout, with a lovely ascent into the climax. The ASO achieved a formidable dynamic arc here (some gripping work from the brass and strings), which McDuffie followed by tearing through the extended cadenza with explosive virtuosity. The Adagio was graced by some lovely playing from the woodwinds (one could almost understand Pablo de Sarasate’s refusal to play the concerto as he felt the oboe got the best tunes). The roguish Allego giocoso fielded a dazzling display from soloist and orchestra alike as McDuffie tore through the series of ascending trills and Spano brought the piece to a satisfying conclusion.

The concerto was a hard act to follow, but the ASO’s delivery of the Serenade No. 2 brought its own rewards. Written in 1859, the piece was dedicated to Clara Schumann, with whom Brahms enjoyed a deeply felt, though platonic relationship.

Schumann was apparently enchanted with it. It is easy to imagine that the high regard in which they held one another informed the Serenade’s gracefully shifting emotional landscape. The Allegro moderato gave way to a delightful launch into the Scherzo, followed by a moving sense of gravitas in the Adagio. The Quasi menuetto was buoyant and teasing, while the final Rondo brought matters home winningly, with more lively work from those woodwinds.

One of the pleasures of the concert was the camera’s focus on Spano between movements, particularly in the Serenade. Spano’s resonation to the music’s emotional palette was something to see, as his mien so clearly set the affective tone for the sound to come.

As was the case with ASO’s trio of works presented April 22, there was a dedication to forces behind the scenes who help make music happen, this time to board member Charles “Charlie” Sharbaugh. An appropriate acknowledgement — as Spano said in his opening interview, making music happen “is what we need” now.

The concert can be seen on the ASO’s virtual “Behind the Curtains” series for the next 30 days.