Robert McDuffie had fully established his following with audiences at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) in two prior appearances on the stage at Jackson Hall. In 2010, in a performance with the Venice Baroque Orchestra, he put his rock star persona on display while handling the solo work in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and then turned on his virtuosic talents in Philip Glass’s “The American Four Seasons.”
McDuffie was back at Mondavi last month, this time with a full symphonic orchestra, to provide the solo duties on Samuel Barber’s violin concerto, and he once again put on display a combination of the rock star persona and the virtuosic talent. Appearing in the most casual of attire, dark slacks and an open-collar bright blue shirt, he joined conductor Dennis Russell Davies and the 100 musicians of the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, in one of the best symphonic concerts we expect we will experience all year.
The concert was programmed in an unusual order that seemed odd at first but ended up working out just fine. The first half, instead of starting with a shorter overture or other one movement work, followed by the concerto, was devoted entirely to the major symphonic work that would usually comprise the second half of the concert. That work was Robert Schumann’s wonderful Symphony No. 1 (his “Spring” symphony). Then, the second half of the concert again reversed the expected order with the concerto, featuring Mr. McDuffie opening and the shorter single-movement work, Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” Suite concluding the concert.
Composed in 1841, Schumann’s symphony is a joyous work (he had married his beloved Clara the previous year), but it is not without intriguing harmonic surprises. Each of the four movements offer fascinating shifts from major to minor keys and back again (it’s written in B-flat major), with the first of those shifts occurring less than a minute into the first movement. That movement also features a major tempo shift (from a sedate Andante to a vigorous Allegro). Nothing, in other words, about the work suggests it should be anything but the major work in a symphonic concert.
But for this concert, it was the “opening act,” and with the orchestra fully filling the Jackson Hall stage, it was a great kick-off. Mr. Davies, sprite and youthful appearing even in his 70s, has a polished and undramatic conducting style that worked well with the large orchestra he was conducting. The performance of the Schumann symphony was excellent and would have been the highlight of many a concert. On this night, however, it was properly placed in the program, as grander performances followed it.
Barber’s violin concerto is a most intriguing work, with a first movement that is sedate to the point of seeming inconsequential, and a second movement that features a wondrous solo section, but it’s for the principal oboe, not the violin. The finale is where the violin is put to the test. It’s a dazzling composition, with a series of musical images passing in rapid figurations that require the utmost of technical skill from the soloist. And then it all ends in a blaze of intensity that demands absolute precision at a breakneck tempo. Mr. McDuffie delivered the movement without seeming to break a sweat and then, as a standing ovation immediately swept the hall, he bounced into the orchestra to shake the hand of the principal oboist before joining Maestro Davies for a series of bows as the applause continued. It was one grand performance by an iconoclastic master of his instrument.
Richard Strauss’s opera “Der Rosenkavalier” was a big hit with Italian audiences when it debuted in 1911. An early suite from the score was probably the work of some of Strauss’s assistants. Many years later, in 1944, Strauss put together a more definitive compilation of the highlights of the full opera with the assistance of Artur Rodzinski, who was then the music director of the New York Philharmonic. The result is a powerful tone poem that includes two waltzes from the opera and a series of rich melodies. The orchestration is grand, with themes for flutes, two harps, and the violins. The work ends with an emphatic waltz that Mr. Davies and his players delivered with resounding gusto.
It was a perfect ending to a perfect, if unusually constructed, symphonic concert.