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The McDuffie school in Macon has already made its musical mark.

Robert McDuffie is the heart and soul of Mercer’s school for strings in Macon.

A visit to Macon on Saturday for the opening ceremonies to mark the new home of the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University offered an opportunity to assess progress at the center, now eight years old. 

The center just moved to the Bell House, one of Macon’s grandest antebellum mansions, lavishly renovated in a project that balances acoustics (an acoustician was involved in the project) with refined good taste. There are currently 21 students, and plans are to cap enrollment at 26. 

Though part of Mercer’s Townsend School of Music, the McDuffie Center, with its ambitious reach and prodigious fund-raising, is essentially a new conservatory. Already, despite its small size and Macon location, its profile has grown to challenge the more established music schools around the South.

Indeed, this little school is getting more attention than anything between Brevard College in North Carolina and the New World Symphony in Miami, both of which have already established partnerships with it. Earlier this month, a group of students from the center was performing at Le Poisson Rouge in New York, the hippest venue in North America, with a program that included the world premiere of a work by Elliott Goldenthal.

The center's new home on College Street in Macon.

The center’s new home on College Street in Macon.

All of this, like the school itself, reflects the passion and energy of Macon native Robert McDuffie. A beloved concert artist, he now tends to focus on projects that interest him rather than touring full time. He performed the premiere of Philip Glass’ Second Violin Concerto, “The American Four Seasons,” and next year he will tour with a “Concerto for Violin and Band” by Mike Mills of the legendary rock group R.E.M. (Growing up, Mills was a piano student of McDuffie’s mother.) McDuffie’s wife, Camille, is the daughter of Charles “Mac” Taylor, an iconic developer who was the model for Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full. They live in New York and seem to know everyone. 

McDuffie has a unique combination of connections across the music world, which has helped draw faculty. But it takes money, lots of it, for this kind of education, which involves a lot of one-on-one teaching. And McDuffie is fabulously connected. He’s been able to reach into Macon’s elite, naturally, but also into donors from Atlanta and all over.

At this opening, there was definitely a sense of “mingling amongst the quality,” with boldface Atlanta names in attendance along with about two dozen New Yorkers who flew down specifically for this occasion.

So why would a prospective student choose this school instead of more established and prestigious ones? I talked to half a dozen students, and the answer was the same: serious music students follow their teachers, without regard to the institution’s label.

Cellist Sihao He, who is from Shanghai and who won the 2013 Gaspar Cassado Competition in Japan, said he had studied under faculty member Hans Jørgen Jensen, and that brought him here. Bassist Mattias Palm, who is from Lund, Sweden, came here after studying with Kurt Muroki, another faculty member, while on tour with the Swedish Youth Orchestra. 

On Saturday afternoon, we heard two ensembles. First, four students and Amy Schwartz Moretti, a well-regarded violinist who serves as the center’s director, performed three short works by Astor Piazzolla. A legendary Tango composer, Piazzolla at one point turned to chamber music, and the first two pieces, “Retrato de Alfredo Gobbi” and “Oblivion,” were from this period. 

The set ended with a rollicking arrangement of “Libertango,” Piazzolla’s most famous work. This was demanding music, and the playing was at a very serious level, comparable to that of Juilliard students. I say that as someone who lived in New York for more than 25 years and who spent so much time at Juilliard that I wound up with a cafeteria pass.

McDuffie then led a string quartet in music from The Great Beauty, a 2013 film directed by Paolo Sorrentino. The movie packs in a lot of music, but this selection, “The Beatitudes,” by Vladimir Martynov, is the aural highlight. Here, it worked quite well, aided by McDuffie’s gorgeous tone, professional-level playing from the students and the warm, lively acoustics of the Bell House parlor, which seats about 60. 

That night we moved across town to Beulahland Bible Church, a vast African American megachurch, for a special evening assembled by McDuffie. Television star Anna Deavere Smith had planned to read excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” with musical accompaniment. It was not to be. Ms. Smith fell at her home in California and was prohibited from traveling here. Instead, she filmed her part, reading while seated at a desk as if in a prison. This was projected on giant screens, while McDuffie and pianist Elizabeth Pridgen performed mostly in the background.

Smith’s performance was quite moving, but was played at a volume that overwhelmed the music and even resulted in some distortion and troubling feedback. The music, which ranged from Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” and John Williams’ theme from Schindler’s List to “Amazing Grace,” was potentially very effective, and the three have scheduled additional performances. 

Musically, the highlight of this program was Dvorak’s “Romantic Piece No. 1,” performed by the duo during an interlude so that it didn’t compete with Smith. But the most moving part of the whole evening came at the end, when Smith read from a conversation she’d had with Congressman John Lewis, in a startlingly effective imitation of his voice. 

Their chat was about a later visit to Montgomery that Lewis made, where a young police chief asked his forgiveness for the way his city and his department had treated Lewis and the other marchers years ago, when they beat the marchers. Lewis’ reflections on forgiveness and the power of love swept over the room. It was an amazing piece of theater. 

Before we heard the letters, all the students from the center performed Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” with McDuffie acting as concertmaster. And here, handicapped by a flawed sound system, imperfect acoustics and a cold start without tuning after lengthy speeches, things sounded a little under par. 

Still, the oddest thing about the evening, given its theme, was the contrast between the packed audience, a wonderful mix of black and white Macon all sitting together, and the all-white student body from the center. 

One other thought lingers. As the classical music universe shrinks, are we preparing students for real jobs? McDuffie pointed out that some graduates have already found major positions in orchestras. But our music schools now turn out far more musicians than in the past (over 5,000 performance majors each year), and the overall quality is better than at any time in history, presumably because of improvements in teaching techniques. 

At the same time, professional chamber concerts appear to be shrinking around the country; orchestras are downsizing and some are dying. Ditto for opera companies.The song concert is all but gone, and solo recital tours are ebbing away. Total orchestra attendance in the 2010–11 season, the last one for which data is available, was 26.5 million, down from 32 million 10 years prior. 

The students I spoke with are full of optimism, and it’s energizing just to hear them. But it’s a cruel world out there. The situation is not unlike that of journalism, of course, with schools turning out armies of “journalists,” a career path that has all but ceased to exist. Trust me on this one.

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