There’s a Glass ceiling in classical music, and the best way to explain it is this: You have broken through it if you’re a musician who convinces midsized orchestras to let you play one of Philip Glass’ concertos.
That’s as likely to happen here as a meteor falling at the intersection of Trade and Tryon, so violinist Robert McDuffie will take another course: He’s coming to Davidson Wednesday to play part of Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2 – which he commissioned – with an ensemble brought up from the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University.
The formal reason for the occasion is to raise funds for WDAV-FM, a cause so worthy that Fred Child of the radio show “Performance Today” will host. The informal reason is a chance for McDuffie to see his son Will, who’s a senior at Davidson College and co-editor in chief of the newspaper there. And the unspoken reason is to give the piece known as “The American Four Seasons” another airing.
“We’ve had amazing success (since the 2009 commission),” he says. “I’ve played the Glass in 80 cities since the premiere, and the Atlanta Symphony will do it in June. It really has legs.”
We’ll see at least a few toes of it in April: He plans to play the fourth movement with a quintet from the Center for Strings, located in his home town of Macon, Ga. He’ll probably play “Winter” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” though that has an unlucky context here: McDuffie played Vivaldi’s full set of concertos at a 2010 fundraiser for Charlotte Chamber Concerts, and the group collapsed two years later. (It merged into the Bechtler Museum’s concert series.)
The rest of the Davidson gig will offer “a lot of pieces by Kreisler and Gershwin and Copland and Dvorak, ‘Ashokan Farewell’ by Jay Unger, ‘Schindler’s List’ by John Williams. I’ll do those with Elizabeth Pridgen, a distinguished artist at my school.”
McDuffie’s bringing the young musicians both “to give them the experience of playing for an audience outside the school, and because they deserve to be heard,” he says. “After nine years, we have formed a true conservatory that competes with brand-name schools; our graduates go on to Indiana University, Juilliard, places like that.
“Music conservatories need to prepare students for the real world. In the 21st century, a talented musician will be an independent contractor, so we teach them about business and law. Mercer has 11 schools, and we tap into those to make players well-rounded.”
McDuffie, who’s 57, followed a more traditional musical route at the start. After graduating from Juilliard, he embarked on the usual path of recordings and orchestral appearances in the 1980s and early ’90s. But his tastes were always eclectic: The traditional Bruch and Mendelssohn alternated with concertos by Bernstein, Barber, William Schuman and Miklós Rózsa.
Nowadays he might share the stage with Gregg Allman and Chuck Leavell for “Midnight Rider,” with actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith for a reading of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” or accompanying Memphis Jook dancer Li’l Buck. Mike Mills, a multi-instrumentalist for R.E.M., is working up a concerto for violin, rock band and string orchestra for his longtime friend.
“Mike’s putting me in the trenches,” says McDuffie, laughing. “He’s composing the same way he did for R.E.M., doing the band’s music; (orchestrator) David Mallamud fleshes it out for the strings and my part. It should exploit the strengths of all three elements.
“This goes back to my desire to play great American composers. I’m not going to play new music for the sake of hearing something once or twice and then putting it on the shelf. My manager has booked a 20-city tour for this concerto, from Atlanta to Toronto to Prague, so I think it’ll have a life.”
Robert McDuffie: WDAV benefit
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Duke Family Performance Hall, Davidson College.
Tickets: $25-$89.90. Avoid online surcharges by buying over the phone.
Details: 704-894-2135; www.wdav.org.