String Theory in the South

Robert McDuffie Center for Strings Connects the Past, Present and Future in New Macon Home

Bell House at Dusk785x487

The Bell House, 315 College Street, Macon, Georgia

Many will know the house from the iconic photograph by Stephen Paley on the cover of the 1969 debut album by the Allman Brothers Band. The six musicians, all in their twenties, soon to be collectively hailed as one of the greatest rock groups of all time, are lined up in a row across the side porch of a Greek Revival-style antebellum residence in Macon, Georgia, originally constructed in 1855 for a wealthy plantation owner.


Sporting long-hair and mutton chops, wearing bell-bottoms, bloused shirts, boots and fringed leather jackets, the boys in the band look stylishly nonchalant. The house is in comparatively shabby condition with white paint peeling off the Corinthian columns and outer walls, and green vines piled up around the column bases.

Nearly a half-century later, on a partially overcast, but otherwise cool and pleasant January afternoon, a remarkably contrasting but not unrelated scene greets a reporter visiting Bell House at 315 College Street. A cadre of Latino workers is putting finishing touches on the structure, which fairly gleams with fresh paint, restored ornamental trim, and cleanly swept porches on three colonnaded sides. Emanating from inside the house are the sonorous strains of a double bass. Peering through a window next to the double-door entrance, the reporter sees a tall young man with straight dark hair and wearing black thick-rimmed glasses sawing away on a large hollow-bodied wooden instrument. His eyes are closed. The melody line is rambling, dreamy and very beautiful. The technique is assuredly expert, but the youth’s body language indicates an attention focused less on notational precision than on deftly manipulating waves of musical sound for the sheer joy of it.

Thanks to the visionary zeal of Macon native Robert “Bobby” McDuffie, one of the world’s leading classical violinists, the Bell House is about to embark on the next leg of its historical journey, this time as the new home of The Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University’s Townsend School of Music. Named for Mercer trustee Gus Bell who donated the 10,000-square-foot building and property to the university in 2008, the now stately mansion houses a 60-seat performance hall plus one smaller salon on the first floor; thirteen dedicated studios and practice rooms, a lounge and storage space on the second; and administrative offices on both. Fiber optic wiring means live instructional sessions can be piped in from anywhere in the world, and live broadcasting of performances is possible. The extensive restoration of the building, which has been listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places since 1972 (one of 57 historic places in Macon to receive the distinction), was funded largely by a $1.5 million grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.

“Like other great conservatories, which took over the grand old homes and turned them into learning centers, we are following a historical model — Curtis did it, Peabody did it, and now we are doing it,” says McDuffie, referring to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

To mark the debut of the newly transformed Bell House, organizers have scheduled tours, chamber concerts and other events on Friday through Sunday, February 20-22. Topping off the weekend is “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a free performance on the evening of Saturday, Feb. 21, by McDuffie and actress-playwright Anna Deveare Smith (West Wing, Nurse Jackie) at the 2,000-seat Beulahland Bible Church. The performance, which intertwines spoken word and music, features Smith portraying historical figures from the civil rights movement including Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis, while McDuffie accompanies the action with songs such as “How Great Thou Art,” “Ashoken Farewell,” “Schindler’s List” and “America the Beautiful.”

Anna Deveare Smith and Robert McDuffie at the Aspen Institute.

Photo by Dan Bayer Anna Deveare Smith and Robert McDuffie at the Aspen Institute.

The events underline the McDuffie Center founder’s commitment to forging partnerships with community arts organizations, such as the Otis Redding Foundation, and instituting outreach programs to encourage local involvement with the center. “I’m happy that our students are getting to see this as another way for them to understand why the arts matter and why what they do matters,” says McDuffie.

In New York, where the violinist has been living with his wife and two children for many years, McDuffie says he learned a few things about the relationship between the arts and the public by serving on the board of the Harlem School of the Arts and chairing the organization’s Education Committee. “The question is: What role can the arts play to make the city a better place,” he says. “People look to the arts for answers, and they turn to music for consolation. Music and the other arts give adults and children ways to communicate across all sorts of divides.”

The Business of Teaching Music

Seven years ago, R. Kirby Godsey, who served as president of Mercer University from 1979 to 2006, asked McDuffie to “figure out a way to put the university’s music program on the map.” Seven years later, with continuing enthusiastic support and leadership from current president William D. Underwood, the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings is well on the way to fulfilling its mission.

“We are reaching a point of stability, which is a wonderful achievement,” says Amy Schwartz Moretti, the center’s director and an accomplished concert violinist in her own right. “Our next big goal is to reach our full complement of twenty-six students.” Twenty-two students are currently enrolled in the undergraduate program, which can accommodate twelve violinists, six violists, six cellists and two double bassists. “By design, the process moves slowly and deliberately. The young people who are chosen for the full program have to be the right fit and be at the right level of talent.”

Students look on as Amy Schwartz Moretti plays in the foyer of the Bell House during renovations.

Photo by Jason Vorhees/Macon Telegraph Students look on as Amy Schwartz Moretti plays in the foyer of the Bell House during renovations.

To expose students to professional venues and develop a feel for the commercial side of the industry, the McDuffie Center has formed partnerships with the Rome Chamber Music Festival, Aspen Music Festival, Brevard Music Festival, Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival, and the Miami-based New World Symphony. Additionally, every other year, the students play Le Poisson Rouge (formerly the legendary Village Gate jazz club), which McDuffie says is “now the hip classical music venue in New York.”

In developing the McDuffie Center’s four-year program, McDuffie insisted on putting an emphasis on business acumen and entrepreneurial skills as well as the pursuit of artistic excellence and academic achievement. “Mercer has a great law school, a great business school, and a great liberal arts program,” he says. “Now it has a conservatory with a specific, business-oriented curriculum, which will prepare 21st century classical musicians for the real world.”

An Eclectic Career

In a career spanning five decades, the 56-year-old McDuffie has performed with the world’s greatest orchestras from New York, Los Angeles and London to Montreal, Frankfurt and Rome. He has headlined programs with the Jerusalem Symphony, Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico, and all of the major orchestras of Australia. He has been participating as a performer and instructor at the Aspen Festival in Colorado for the last thirty-nine summers. In 2003, an abiding passion for all things Italian compelled the violinist to found the Rome Chamber Music Festival. His family even lived in Italy for a brief period.

In 2009, McDuffie joined the Toronto Symphony for the world premiere of Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons, which was written by Phillip Glass for the violinist. At McDuffie’s urging, Glass wrote his concerto for the same instrumentation used by Antonio Vivaldi in the original Four Seasons with the exception of the harpsichord, which was replaced by—what else—a synthesizer.

Robert McDuffie and Chuck Leavell perform together at Atlanta Symphony Hall on Jan. 18, 2014.

Photo by Jeff Roffman/Courtesy Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Robert McDuffie and Chuck Leavell perform together at Atlanta Symphony Hall on Jan. 18, 2014.

Last January McDuffie joined an all-star troupe of rock ‘n’ rollers including Gregg Allman, Randall Bramblett, Jimmy Hall and Michelle Malone, plus the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, at Atlanta Symphony Hall to celebrate the music of Georgia-born composer, singer and Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell. At one point during the free-wheeling fandango, McDuffie found himself onstage jamming with the gang on “Midnight Rider.”

“That show was one of the most fun things I have ever done, but I was also very nervous about the whole thing,” McDuffie says, his beaming, boyish countenance testifying to the honesty in the remark.

McDuffie grew up in a north Macon suburb, the child of middle class, musically oriented parents. His mother Susan, who still teaches piano, is locally renowned as a church organist and choir director. Along with his peers, McDuffie could hardly avoid being exposed to the musical exploits of hometown heroes, such as Otis Redding and Little Richard. The ascendancy of the Allman Brothers was a source of local pride, which led to shared devastation in the wake of the untimely deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. In spite of many opportunities, before he participated in the Leavell tribute at Symphony Hall, McDuffie had never seen a live concert by the Allman Brothers or any of its band members.

“Backstage, before the show, I told Gregg that, even though I wasn’t aware of it back then, listening to Duane and Dickey going at it on those recordings was my first exposure to chamber music. The reason why I love playing chamber music today is because of the conversational and deferential manner in which those guys made music.” McDuffie says Allman looked up at the sky, shook his head, then muttered in his distinctive gravelly drawl, “’Chamber music, man…oh, man, chamber music….’”

A Transformative Concert

As an adolescent who enjoyed playing sports almost as much as he loathed practicing the violin, McDuffie was a determined, though not naturally gifted, athlete. Finally making the starting five on the JV basketball squad in middle school, he says, “was the biggest thing in my life at that point.” Then, on the night of the big game against the team’s arch rival, McDuffie’s parents insisted on his accompanying them to a concert at Wesleyan College. The featured soloist was a young Israeli violin virtuoso with a funny sounding name McDuffie had never heard before. “I was furious, as you can imagine, at that age. I was so upset, I wouldn’t sit with my parents. They sat in the back, while I sat on the second row all alone.”

When Itzhak Perlman, who was stricken by polio at the age of four, came out onstage, he was ambulatory, but moving with considerable difficulty on crutches. The piano accompanist for the evening walked next to him, ready to assist, carrying Perlman’s violin. “I had never seen anyone struggle like that,” McDuffie recalls. “That was the first time I ever felt empathy for anybody.”

The young man with the unruly mop of curly hair put down his crutches and clambered into a chair. Taking the violin from the accompanist, Perlman cradled the instrument in the crook between his neck and shoulder, and began playing the opening bars of the Sonata in G Minor by Giuseppe Tartini. Known as the ‘Devil’s Trill Sonata,’ the work is a notoriously difficult test-piece.

Itzhak Perlman

Itzhak Perlman

“I was transformed,” McDuffie recalls. “I had never seen such hard playing look so easy. Then there was the joy with which he played or, at least, that was the impression he gave—an impression of joyful music-making. Seeing the facile way in which his fingers moved, hearing that beautiful sound, and that magnificent arrangement by [Fritz] Kreisler. After witnessing that, I did not give a damn about basketball!”

Not too many years later, McDuffie left Macon for New York. A gifted up-and-comer, he studied at Julliard under Perlman’s legendary teacher, Dorothy Delay. Fast forward a few more decades and McDuffie and Perlman are friends and fellow members of a friendly poker-playing group. One evening, at Delay’s 70th birthday party, McDuffie tells Perlman about the transformative concert experience at Wesleyan College, which effectively locked in the trajectory of McDuffie’s life and career.

“He looks at me and says, ‘You probably would have made more money playing basketball.’”

Not Just Another Pretty Violin

Actually, for McDuffie, professional violin playing has proven to be a lucrative occupation. So lucrative, he was able to purchase his fantasy instrument, a violin made in 1735 by Bartolomeo “Giuseppe” Guarneri del Gesù, who is regarded as the finest talent among an acclaimed family of violin-makers in Cremona, Italy. Even in the 18th century, the instruments produced by the Guarneri clan were reputedly superior to examples from the other great house of Italian violin makers, the Stradivarius. Today, many soloists prefer the Guarneri because it produces a more robust (some would say louder) tone and is more capable of withstanding the rigors of a touring performer’s regimen. McDuffie’s “del Gesu,” dubbed The Ladenburg for one of its owners, a 19th century German banking family, was once Nicolò Paganini’s instrument of choice.

“It gives me the greatest confidence, so that when I walk onstage I know that I can do whatever I want to do, and never have to think about the instrument’s limitations,” McDuffie says.

In 2001, after playing the Ladenburg for several years under a loan agreement struck with a rare violin dealer, McDuffie formed a limited partnership of sixteen investors called 1735 del Gesù Partners LP. The group purchased the instrument for the then-current value of $3.5 million. One of the “del Gesù” investors is Mike Mills, a teenage friend of McDuffie’s who also happens to be the bassist for the recently retired rock band R.E.M.

Boys Will Be Famous Musicians

The two men met when they were 12-13 years old and members of the youth and handbell choirs at First Presbyterian Church in Macon (where Sydney Lanier was once the organist). On Sunday evenings, the boys’ parents got together, usually at the McDuffie’s house, where “my dad would cook spaghetti and the adults would libate while the kids watched The Waltons and Barnaby Jones.” Although Bobby and Mike took dramatically different paths in pursuit of their muse, they kept in touch and occasionally crashed each other’s gigs, especially when they were playing in the same city.

Mike Mills and Robert "Bobby" McDuffie

Mike Mills and Robert “Bobby” McDuffie

A few years ago, McDuffie approached Mills about writing something in a classical vein. The result is a work-in-progress titled Concerto for Violin and Rock Band. Last October, McDuffie, Mills and members of the McDuffie Center for Strings recorded a “demo” of the first two movements of the concerto. A video clip of the session, which was recorded in Athens at Studio 1093, is readily accessible online. Plans are currently underway to take Concerto for Violin and Rock Band on the road in 2016-17.

“I had not seriously thought about doing anything of this nature before,” Mills says. “What we are doing is relatively untried; as such, I am hoping to avoid any overt influences. I am looking at it as a tabula rasa, although, of course, nothing is created in a vacuum.”

Bobby McDuffie, Mike Mills, students from the McDuffie Center for Strings and engineers at Studio 1093 in Athens.

Bobby McDuffie, Mike Mills, students from the McDuffie Center for Strings, guitarists John Neff and Wade Hester, drummer Patrick Ferguson and engineers at Studio 1093 in Athens during the recording of “Concerto for Violin and Rock Band.”

 * * *

Back at the Bell House, final preparations for the gala opening are proceeding. McDuffie explains to a reporter that, in refurbishing the house as a conservatory, a professional acoustician was hired to provide design, construction and materials guidance. Some sections of the second floor are reinforced with extra concrete to contain the sound of instruments playing and mitigate creaking noises. The walls in the practice rooms are not quite square, which enhances the interior acoustics. In the high-ceilinged, 60-seat performance hall on the first floor, where a string quartet, large chamber ensemble or lone double bassist would feel at home, tall windows await the installation of specially fabricated acoustical drapery.

As a touchstone for the progenitors of Southern Rock and now a proving ground for the budding symphonic stars of tomorrow, the Bell House symbolizes a cultural imperative spanning genres and generations. “I don’t think we have compromised on anything to give our students the best possible experience,” McDuffie says.

One would expect nothing less from the founder and caretaker of The Robert McDuffie Center for Strings and its musically tinged abode.


Sat., Feb. 21, 2015   7:30 p.m.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Robert McDuffie and Anna Deveare Smith
Beulahland Bible Church
1010 Newberg Ave., Macon
Free. Tickets are first come, first served and available at the Grand Opera House Box Office
651 Mulberry St., Macon

Mon., Feb. 23   7:30 p.m.
Student Chamber Ensemble
Robert McDuffie Center for Strings
Bell House, 315 College St.
Free admission, first come, first served

Mon., March 2   7:30 p.m.
Student Solos
Robert McDuffie Center for Strings
Bell House, 315 College St.
Free admission, first come, first served

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