It’s Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. The program tonight is the Four Seasons Project, a collaboration between violinist Robert McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. Its object: to present a performance of Vivaldi’s famous The Four Seasons alongside a new concerto by minimalist composer Philip Glass.
The musicians file onto the stage. Cellists, harpsichord and theorbo (a kind of Renaissance lute) take their seats. The rest of the orchestra remains standing in a tradition that allows the musicians to move about the stage when needed and engage in better eye contact with the solo violinist. Finally Robert McDuffie comes out, carrying the 1735 Guarneri violin (nicknamed “the Ladenburg”) that he plays in all of his solo endeavors. He tunes up, raises bow to strings, and The Four Seasons begins.
“In the early 2000s—2001 and 2002—I was thinking about what projects to do and learning a new piece. I kept asking myself, “What would be a great piece that would endure?” So says Robert McDuffie, pausing for a Sunday morning interview at his New York home in the middle of his tour schedule. The violinist and Macon native has just a short window before getting back on the road and heading to a concert in Washington, D.C.
“I always enjoyed the Vivaldi Four Seasons,” he says. “Even though a trillion violinists had done them, I wanted to do it too. And when I started looking for a companion piece to play with it, the only name that came to mind was Philip Glass.”
Antonio Vivaldi was one of the most prolific composers of the Italian Renaissance. He wrote The Four Seasons in 1723. The four concertos, consisting of three movements each, correspond to a cycle of the seasons of the year, starting with spring and ending with winter. Although they usually stand alone, these four concertos are part of a longer set of compositions entitled The Contest of Harmony and Invention.
Glass, on the other hand, is an American original. One of the most popular composers of the last 50 years, his music is founded on the idea of minimalism: simple chords, repeated in tonal cycles and varied to produce rhythms, much like rock riffs or jazz vamps. He is best known for writing very long operas where not much happens on the state, dreamy film soundtracks and compositions that continue to explore the restless edge of invention.
The Violin Concerto No. 2 is one of his more accessible works: short, to the point and brilliant in its approach to the form. However, Glass maintains that while the piece bears the subtitle, “The American Four Seasons,” it is up to listeners to construct in their imaginations which season corresponds to which movement.
Glass’ music has a characteristic chugging drive to it, and his penchant for writing arpeggios (three-note figures built from the notes that make up a given chord, repeated several times) makes his work well suited to the violin.
FROM THE OCMULGEE TO THE GRAND CANAL
“The Vivaldi was an evolutionary thing for me,” McDuffie reveals. “I had my own ‘Macon, Georgia’ approach to the Vivalidi. But the musicians of the Venice Baroque Orchestra are true experts. They’ve made more Vivaldi recordings than anybody. But they were never bullies about it.
“They were collegial and open to anything I suggested and they would politely suggest things to me,” he continues. “We learned through the music and the rehearsals and while rehearsing, we learned without having to speak.”
McDuffie has drawn repeated comparisons between Glass and Vivaldi, going so far as to state that Philip Glass was America’s answer to the Venetian composer. Both were prolific composers in their time. And while Glass, with his minimalist approach to music, has been criticized for repeating himself, Antonio Vivaldi suffered the same fate. “Philip Glass has been accused by critics of writing the same piece over and over, even to the point that musicians joke about it,” McDuffie notes. “But Igor Stravinsky once commented that Vivaldi wrote the same piece 500 times. I think that’s pretty ignorant.
“One night, my wife and I were sitting on the floor, listening to Gidon Kremer’s recording of the First Violin Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra,” he relates. “I fell in love with it then, and I said, ‘I have to play this piece.’ I learned it and started playing it in the late ’90s.”
McDuffie recorded the concerto with the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1999. “When I met Mr. Glass,” he says, “he told me: ‘The triangle player is off in the last movement. You make sure the Houston Symphony triangle player plays in time!’
“I went down to his place, I think, in 2002, and I told him that I think that he is America’s Vivaldi, and that Vivaldi was Italy’s Philip Glass. He was amused by that, but enthusiastic about writing the piece.”
McDuffie explains that Glass was less enthusiastic about composing each work to correspond exactly to the four seasons as Vivaldi did. “I told him: ‘Just write the music as four large movements, and we’ll go from there.'”
“The Glass piece was a little different,” McDuffie says. “[The Venetian musicians] were very curious about his music, and had been rehearsing the accompaniment.” Each orchestral section uses repeated notes, chords and rhythms, characteristics of Glass’ minimalist style.” “They didn’t realize the greatness of the piece until they heard the solo violin part.”
MUTUAL ADMIRATION SOCIETY
He maintains that even as he looked to the Venetian players for guidance with Vivaldi, they looked to him for help with the Glass work. “They change to modern bows to play this, but still use the period instruments,” he explains. “They tune at 440, a slightly lower frequency. I have relative pitch, and that’s a little low for me, but it’s in the ballpark. They were cheerful and eager to learn, eager to play. They love the piece, and they respect him.
He adds that the Venice Baroque Orchestra is “very assertive,” when it comes to playing the Vivaldi concertos. “That’s their style. Much of it is my interpretation, but as we’ve played together, they’ve brought me into their world. That’s why we click.
“It’s evolved as we’ve played into a mature presentation, where I feel that I’ve become the student,” he says. “Not that I’m riding piggyback, but I’ve migrated to their interpretation.”
He adds: “The only thing I lead is to cue the first notes and then I’m not leading at all. Our lute player [Ivan Zanenghi] is kind of the secret weapon.
For the second half of the Carnegie Hall concert, the lineup of the orchestra has changed slightly. The theory [a long-necked Renaissance lute that is effectively the world’s first double-necked guitar] has been removed, as has the harpsichord. Keyboardist Luca De Marchi is now sitting at a modern synthesizer. McDuffie takes the stage, and the first voice that is heard is of his violin.
SOLO FLIGHTS MEET ENSEMBLE PRECISION
Each movement of The American Four Seasons opens with a solo violin part for McDuffie, a kind of soliloquy for the instrument that Glass refers to as a “song.” There are three more songs throughout the work. They serve to separate the individual movements and serve the same function as a cadenza in a more conventional concerto form.
“That was one part of the piece that was kind of a gift from him,” McDuffie says, referring to the four songs. “I thought it was practical on his part, not only to introduce each season, but having the four songs work together.” The songs are also designed to be separated out and played in order as one long piece of music for solo violin, something McDuffie is planning to do on a later tour.
He admits that the solos are difficult. “The writing is very exposed, and there are a lot of perfect intervals. I have to make sure they are perfect. From a technical side of things, it is a ‘magic-in-the-moment’ thing for me. With those songs, I try not to play them the same way every night.
“Now that we have the piece locked in and memorized, the tricky part is to make sure that we don’t fall into rhythmic stagnation,” he says. “The slow movements are achingly beautiful. And we have to make sure that we don’t play them too slow.”
Those propulsive rhythms and chords that form the heart of Glass’ style dominate the final movement of this concerto. In a way, they match with the works of Vivaldi, as the keyboards and low strings establish a steady background for McDuffie’s instrument to take flight. When the solo finally comes, it is a searing thoroughly 20th century series of three-note arpeggio figures that recall the Bach-like instrumental solos of rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen. (Oddly enough, Van Halen’s 1984 hit, “Jump,” was dubbed “Philip Glass gone metal” by a critic.”
The work pauses for breath, with a series of soft chords that sound like the quiet eye of a hurricane. Then the storm surge starts again, with McDuffie repeating a variation on the first set of arpeggios. The violinist makes a series of lyrics asides before the chugging cello rhythm catches up with him and the whole thing drives forward with a relentless force that suggests an express train. As McDuffie’s lyric outpourings become even more fervent, the keyboard takes up the arpeggio figures. The soloist files over the ensemble in a high-wire act, dueling with the synthesizer before careening into a final series of downward scales in the final coda. The coda repeats twice, and then the work surges to finish on a high note.
Philip Glass: Violin Concert No. 2: The American Four Seasons with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor, and Robert McDuffie, soloist, is available on Orange Mountain Music.