Violinist Robert McDuffie rocks forward on his left leg, his feet little more than shoulder width apart, keeping time with the music. With his back to a stripped-down Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, he even bounces a little. His eyes are closed. Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, which McDuffie premiered in 2010 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, is in his muscle memory.
McDuffie, a native of Macon, bowls through phrases loaded with tricky interval leaps and quick-moving double stops with an intimate familiarity. In the years after its premiere, McDuffie spread Glass’ 38-minute composition, which is subtitled “The American Four Seasons,” across the country with a 30-city tour and a seminal 2010 recording.
Thursday night’s ASO concert reunited McDuffie with conductor Peter Oundjian, who serves as the music director of both the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Oundjian conducted the Glass world premiere, and Thursday’s performance had a feeling of two old friends getting together for an evening of music making. (McDuffie and Oundjian will reunite once again in Toronto later this month for the premiere of Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and Orchestra by R.E.M.’s Mike Mills.)
Commissioned by McDuffie in the early 2000s, Violin Concerto No. 2 is an American companion to Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” a nearly omnipresent Italian masterwork McDuffie thought needed a contemporary counterpoint. In approachable, crowd-pleasing minimalism that sometimes sounds like a movie score — snatches of Glass’ soundtrack to the “Thin Blue Line” seemed to float in and out of the piece — the composer aped the overall feeling of Vivaldi’s modern-sounding work in the Glass aesthetic. The four movements of the American seasons are presented with four contrasting “songs” for solo violin. These pieces were melded together without pause.
McDuffie’s acrobatic violin sound is built for speed and pliability, and he sounds best when playing blistering, tricky runs that dance atop his fingerboard. But McDuffie’s sound also has a tinge of danger, and some of his slower passages danced on the edge of intonation. The sound is biting and aggressive in the high end, turning rich and sonorous when he reaches into the depths of the instrument. The contrast between his tone and the golden beauty of the orchestra — the ASO interpreted the work with a small ensemble of strings and a synthesizer — was a bit shocking at first. In the second movement, the cello and bass sections sounded particularly brilliant, weaving an undulating fog of deep notes under McDuffie’s part.
The ensemble plowed through Glass’ repetitive, slowly shifting rhythms with dedication. The accompaniment trudges along at such a steady, unwavering pace that there’s not much room to stretch out ostinatos for emotional effect, but under Oundjian’s baton, the accompaniment sounded expressive and dramatic.
During the second half, Oundjian led a significantly enlarged ASO with a full complement of percussion in a rousing reading of “Symphonie Fantastique” by Hector Berlioz. As a conductor, Oundjian doesn’t waste any time, jumping into each movement after only the slightest pauses. But this eagerness didn’t carry over to the music, as he took care to deliberately build up phrases to electrifying, ear-splitting climaxes followed by placid, serene piano sections. The Berlioz symphony requires the ensemble to navigate quick, sudden changes in dynamics and feel; Oundjian’s sure hand helped create a thrilling contrast to the flowing repetition presented during the first half of the concert.
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