Strings of Gold

Violinist Robert McDuffie plays his million-dollar instrument with verve and appreciation.

Robert McDuffie knows better than anyone that the arts are a good investment.

Two years ago, he and 15 other investors formed a corporation and purchased a $3.5 million Guarneri del Gesù violin dating from 1735. The corporation leases the instrument--which had been played by such 19th-century masters as Paganini and Spohr--to McDuffie until he turns 65, 20 years from now. All McDuffie has to do is pay for its maintenance and insurance--a good $20,000 a year--and keep playing it to maintain its value.

When he hits 65, the investors will sell the instrument. Depending on how much the violin appreciates, the partners should end up splitting between $10.3 million and $25.7 million--after taxes.

Despite the financial windfall, McDuffie is trying not to think about what he'll do when he has to give up the violin.

"Don't ask me that," he moaned recently from his home in New York City. "That's gonna be a really tough time. I knew that when I put this together. I'm tempted to say it's a Faustian deal, but it's not, because I'm receiving the artistic reward in the prime of my performing life. What else can you ask for?"

To keep it permanently?

"Well, yes, but the owners will be receiving their financial reward at the end. Artistically, I have another 20 years to go, and I'm going to make the most of that. I certainly don't see myself playing 100 concerts a year when I'm 65 years old."

Among the hundred-odd concerts McDuffie is playing this year are a cycle of them this week with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and conductor George Hanson. McDuffie will be applying his very old and valuable violin to, by classical standards, very new music: John Adams' 1993 Violin Concerto. (The concert will also include two golden oldies, Brahms' Tragic Overture and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.)

The concerto garnered Adams the 1995 Grawemeyer Award, one of the most distinguished and lucrative in the classical world; a few weeks ago, Adams received a Pulitzer Prize for his Sept. 11 memorial work, On the Transmigration of Souls. A 1996 survey of orchestras found Adams to be the most-performed living American composer. McDuffie won't argue with the tastes of music directors, especially when it comes to the Adams Violin Concerto.

"I'll make a grand, sweeping statement: I think it's the greatest concerto for any instrument in the last 50 years," he declared. "It has a rhapsodic, multilayered approach in the first movement, a very dreamy, reflective slow movement, and it has one of those kick-ass third movements that violinists covet and that has always been required to complete any great concerto for violin."

McDuffie hasn't had as many opportunities to play it as he'd like; cautious music directors are more likely to ask him to perform Bruch or Mendelssohn or some other Romantic favorite. But he did record it and the Philip Glass Violin Concerto with Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony for a 1999 Telarc CD. And the last time he performed the work live, it was with the composer conducting.

Did McDuffie, who had already studied the concerto with Adams, ever find himself interpretively at odds with the composer?

"Only when he was conducting," McDuffie half-joked. "He has a really fantastic rhythmic discipline, and I had to fit whatever musical gestures I wanted to make within his rhythm.

"As many times as I've played the piece, I'm still scratching the surface of it. That's a testament to its power; I'm still trying to forge my own identity with the piece."

McDuffie plays a wide range of music, but he has been especially interested in works by living Americans and composers of recent generations. The last time he appeared with the Tucson Symphony, 10 years ago, he played Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto.

"When I was a student at Juilliard, it was (composer) David Diamond who took me to Samuel Barber's apartment to play his concerto for him, and that night changed my life," he said. He has since recorded music of both Barber and Diamond, and his recording of concertos by Leonard Bernstein and William Schuman earned him a 1990 Grammy nomination.

In concert, McDuffie plays much more than the works of such gray eminences, but he admits there are limits to his interests.

"I have become pretty picky in the concertos I play," he said. "I only want to learn new pieces I feel will endure. The Adams is almost a standard already. It's being played by wonderful fiddle players like Vadim Repin, and that's what it takes--having busy soloists continually play a new work will get it into the standard repertoire. There's one new concerto I really wish I could play more, by Stephen Paulus (a former Tucson Symphony composer in residence). There are many pieces to the puzzle of securing concert dates and agreeing on a repertoire with conductors and presenters, but I know I'll revisit the Paulus concerto one day."

Perhaps in the 2004-5 season McDuffie will start playing a work he is commissioning from Philip Glass.

"I've asked him to write an American Four Seasons for me using the same instrumentation as Vivaldi, but using the famous Philip Glass sound and pulse. He is excited about it, and we'll do tours with Vivaldi in the first half and Glass in the second half. Several orchestras are already waiting for this to be ready, and Telarc wants to record it. Again, I wanted to work with a composer whose music I knew would last. I don't want to play a piece just for the sake of playing it, and then put it on the shelf."

Luckily, McDuffie said, his treasured Guarneri is well suited to both Glass and Vivaldi, and nearly everything else he plays.

"It's given me so much more confidence," he said. "I don't have to pull back anymore the way I did with other violins. When I played a Strad and some other famous violins, I felt I was running with a pulled hamstring, but with this particular Guarnerius, I feel like I can give 100 percent and let it rip. But it also has such incredible sweetness and tenderness. It's a schizophrenic violin in that way; it has all the personalities you'd want in an instrument in order to make music."