Violinist  Robert  McDuffie

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Robert McDuffie was born into a musical family in Macon, Georgia, United States. Both his mother, Susan McDuffie, and his younger sister, Margerie McDuffie, are pianists. He attended the Juilliard School in New York City as a student of Dorothy Delay, spending his summers in her studio at the Aspen Music Festival and School. He plays a Guarneri del Gesù violin made in 1735 named the "Ladenburg" that he purchased for $3.5 million. He was nominated for a Grammy in 1990 for his performance of concertos by Leonard Bernstein and William Schuman. McDuffie is a co-founder and artistic director for the Rome Chamber Music Festival in Rome, Italy. He currently lives in New York City with his wife Camille and two children, Eliza and Will.

He has played as a soloist with many of the major orchestras around the world including those of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minnesota, Houston, St. Louis, Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Santa Cecilia Orchestra of Rome as well as the major orchestras of Australia and East Asia.

McDuffie has appeared on A&E's Breakfast with the Arts, CBS News Sunday Morning, NBC's The Today Show, PBS's Charlie Rose, National Public Radio, as well as the front page of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

In 2016, he toured to support a Concerto for Violin, Rock Band, and String Orchestra with childhood friend and former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, along with guitar players William Tonks and John Neff.

The Robert McDuffie Center for Strings of Mercer University offers conservatory-quality music training in a comprehensive university setting. McDuffie leads the center and has served as Distinguished University Professor of Music since 2004. The focus of the center, part of the Townsend School of Music at Mercer's main campus in Macon, Georgia, is to provide highly talented string students the opportunity to learn with some of the nation's most renowned string musicians. The center's home is the Bell House, an antebellum mansion built in 1855 and listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Total enrollment is limited to 26 students: 12 violinists, 6 violists, 6 cellists and 2 bassists.


Readers who are alert to such things might notice the similarity of the unusual spelling of our surnames.  Most times, it will be spelled Duffy.  Though not unique, the use of
ie at the end can be unexpected, and for me, has been a source of quiet pride all my life.  [To read more about my own adventures with this name, see the box at the bottom of this webpage.]  In any event, it was great to meet this talented violinist, and share a few moments with him during his busy schedule.
Robert McDuffie returned to Chicago in July of 1994 for the 60th Anniversary Season of the Grant Park Festival, the free summer outdoor series of concerts on the lakefront.

As we were setting up, we talked about his recordings, some of which were already available, and others which were still to come along.

Robert McDuffie:   There are two for Telarc.  First is the Barber Concerto with Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra [shown at left], and I’m recording a Viennese album with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and Erich Kunzel [shown below-right].

Bruce Duffie:   I just met him last week at Ravinia.  He usually conducts on days I can’t go, but this was a Thursday concert, and I’m off on Thursdays.  He said he’s not going to do a Thursday concert again.  There were a lot of people, but it wasn’t mobbed.

RMcD:   I’ve done two extravaganzas with him at Ravinia.  I did Tchaikovsky a few years ago, and a Kreisler evening.  This new recording will be Kreisler/Lehar/Strauss, with the Cincinnati Pops.  I’m happy to be recording for Telarc.

BD:   You seem to have specialized in doing new repertoire.  What is it about new works that intrigues you?

RMcD:   They always have intrigued me.  As far as the records are concerned, that Schuman/Bernstein disc just happened to be my first one.  It just happened to consist of American music, and that’s actually fine with me.  But if you look at my season, it has a healthy diversity.  I play Mozart and Beethoven on a regular basis, combined with the romantic war-horses like Tchaikovsky and Dvořák.

BD:   From the repertoire, how do you decide which you’ll play and which you’ll not play?

RMcD:   That is a good question.  I do have a pretty large list that I submit each season to orchestras, and we both whittle it down.  Then I make the final decision where I know it’s going to be a nice balance.  For instance, one season, right after Leonard Bernstein died, I ended up playing nineteen performances of his Serenade.

BD:   Were they all in tribute to him?

RMcD:   Right.  After he died, I got the calls to play the work everywhere.  Unfortunately, when William Schuman died, I think I had one request to play his Concerto, which is really too bad.  It’s also a wonderful piece.  The Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra was the only orchestra that asked me to do it.  That’s why I’m happy that I just played it a couple of weeks ago in Aspen.  But it really depends.  I’ll tour the Tchaikovsky with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, and then come right back and do the Bernstein.  It keeps me on my toes, musically.

BD:   When you get approached with new scores that composers want you to play, how do you decide if you will spend the time learning them?

RMcD:   That’s a tough decision.  There are not many of us who actually play a lot of American music, and that’s unfortunate.  Some of the newer pieces have come from commissions.  I’ve asked composers to write for me.

BD:   When you ask a composer to write, do you just say to write a concerto, or are you more specific?

RMcD:   I am a little more specific.  Usually, we need to know what the performance time limit should be.  A perfect example is Stephen Paulus, who just wrote a Violin Concerto for me two years ago.  I performed it at the Aspen Festival in honor of my violin teacher Dorothy DeLay’s 75th birthday.  It’s a wonderful eighteen-minute piece.  Dorothy loved it so much, she wanted to use it as a competition piece at Juilliard School.  I also asked Paulus just a few months ago to write a piece for piano trio and bass baritone, which he did.  It was First performed May 26, 1994, at the Supreme Court to honor the life and work of Justice Harry Blackmun at his retirement.  It was based on Carl Sandburg’s The Long Shadow of Lincoln.  Samuel Ramey sang, and the trio was Carter Brey (cello), Patricia Michaelian (piano), and myself.

BD:   In reading your biography, I noticed that you played for the Supreme Court on several occasions.  How does one get invited to appear in front of them when you’re not under indictment?

RMcD:   [Laughs]  I met Justice Blackmun about thirteen years ago at a dinner party in Washington.  I was a student at Juilliard, and was asked to play chamber music with some fellow students after dinner.  I happened to be seated next to Blackmun, and we hit it off.  I remember him asking me when I was going to be playing in Washington again.  I told him that in a couple of months I was going to be playing at the Library of Congress, and he said he’d be there.  I chalked that up to dinner party pleasantries, and surely wasn’t expecting him, but there he was!  We had dinner afterwards, and that was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.  He officiated at my wedding in 1986 in Atlanta, and said some absolutely beautiful things.  I played for one of his daughter’s weddings, and we spent a lot of time together each summer at Aspen, where he moderates a seminar on Justice in Society at the Institute of Humanistic Studies, while I’m out there playing at the music festival.  So, we get caught up each year, and it’s been a wonderful friendship.  Because of that, we started a music series at the Court.  We’ve had four performances over the last eight years, and we’ve had everybody from Bobby Short to Peter Nero, Samuel Ramey, Ruth Laredo, and Jon Kimura Parker.  I’ve been conscripted to play at each concert, [laughs] and next time I’d love to be a member of the audience!  But all of the Justices show up, and all of the living retired Justices show up.  Louis Powell comes up from Richmond, and Brennen comes.  He still has an office there.   

BD:   Where at the Court do you play?

RMcD:   Not in the actual Court Room, but in the East Conference Room, which is right off the corridor from the back.  It’s a wonderful intimate room with portraits of John Jay and William Howard Taft.  It has French doors opening up into a courtyard.  The last two performances have been recorded for National Public Radio, and one of the performances was on the Today program.  We have a wonderful crowd of about 200 people who are friends of the Court, and Washington musical establishment people.  It takes place in the middle of the afternoon, and it’s a pretty unusual affair, something different.
BD:   It doesn’t seem to get a huge amount of publicity.
RMcD:   That’s because they really don’t want it to get a huge amount of publicity.  The NPR program Performance Today reaches about a million people, or at least that’s what they tell us, and they didn’t want to be perceived as being elite.  [Muttering in a faux-grumble]  There’s the Washington establishment again having great music that nobody else can listen to, so that’s why they agreed to have it broadcast.  As to the last concert for which Thurgood Marshall was still alive, he cast the deciding vote whether the program was to be broadcast, so I tell people that I’m part of a five to four decision!  [Both laugh]

BD:   This leads me to another of my favorite questions.  Is the music that you a play for everyone?

RMcD:   I would hope so.  That’s one of our duties and roles as performers, to be a messenger of great music.  Hopefully we have what it takes to present that music to everyone.  Naturally, everybody would agree that Classical Music is not for everyone, just like Country Music isn’t for everyone, and Shakespeare isn’t for everyone, even though Shakespeare should be for everyone.

BD:   Should Mozart be for everyone?

RMcD:   [Thinks a moment]  If young people were exposed to the things that we all think they should be exposed to, then the answer would be yes, but unfortunately that’s not the case.

BD:   I trust you don’t want to give it to them like castor oil.

RMcD:   [Laughs]  No!  Nothing should ever be forced on anyone, but idealistically, whenever I play a piece, I would hope that I can reach everyone that’s in the audience.  That’s what turned me on to Classical Music.  I was literally dragged to a violin recital of Itzhak Perlman when I was fourteen.  I’d been playing for eight years, but at the age of fourteen, peer pressure is pretty acute.

BD:   Were you playing studies and scales, or full pieces?

RMcD:   I was a pretty good fiddle player, but not a child prodigy.  I was doing the Rotary Club circuit and events like that.

BD:   But you were playing real pieces, so you’d heard of a lot of great music in your own home as you played it.

RMcD:   Absolutely, but I’d never been turned on by a live performance.  I was on the basketball team, and I worked very hard and had been promoted to the starring team.  We were playing our rival school, and that was the night Perlman was playing.  My mother took me to his concert, and I was not very happy about it.  But once he started to play, I didn’t give a damn about basketball.  It was just what he could make the violin do, and that’s why I feel live performances are so important to young people.

BD:   Do you make sure that you give as many live performances as you can?

RMcD:   Right.  In fact, today, here in Chicago, I played two Outreach programs that Grant Park had started.  I’m happy to be a part of it.  We’d played at a Children’s Hospital this afternoon, and then I played at the library for a wonderful gathering of people.  It’s a wonderful thing they’re doing.

BD:   You make sure that you play for young people, not just adults?

RMcD:   All people.  There were a lot of young people there at both events.

BD:   Is this the way to get more audience?

RMcD:   It’s one way.  Thankfully now, presenters and orchestra managements have seen the reality, and valuable ideas are being exchanged as to how to reach younger people with earlier concerts and shorter concerts, but without compromising the standards to which we all really want to adhere.  There have been some controversial suggestions made, and some might be implemented.  A perfect way to reach younger professionals would be for orchestras to offer day-care or baby-sitting services on the premises.

BD:   Come to the concert, drop off your kid, and hear the performance?

RMcD:   Come to the concert!  We’ve got the baby-sitter, so just bring your children!  You don’t have to pay for the baby-sitter.  We furnish it.  It’s a fabulous idea, and I’m surprised that more orchestras don’t do that.  I’m finally experiencing some of that because I’m on the Board of the Harlem School of the Arts in New York.  It’s for minority children, blacks and Hispanics, and we’re constantly searching for new ways of doing concerts.  The really young kids seem to enjoy it.  It’s when they reach twelve, thirteen, fourteen that their attention leaves, and that’s where we have to show them that it really is a pretty amazing thing we do.  In our case, we need more black and Hispanic role models in the Classical Music field.  That’s why we’re turning The Harlem School of the Arts into a theater school for the conservatories, instead of just a showcase for parents and guilty white people.  It’s going to take a long time, but I think we’re on the right track.  So hopefully, in a very small way, we’re helping to remedy the situation.

BD:   In the music you play, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and a real entertainment value?

RMcD:   That’s a tough one, because there are some classical pieces that are for entertainment purposes only.  On the other hand, I don’t think that the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time is a real entertaining piece.  If done correctly, it’s one that touches nerves that hopefully have never been touched before.  So sometimes instead of being entertained, you want to be taught, or really moved and uplifted.  People have different experiences in concerts, and that’s the joy of a live performance.  You never know how you reach the people you do reach.

BD:   We’re dancing around it, so let me hit you with the big question.  What is the purpose of music?


See my interviews with Miklós Rózsa, and Lynn Harrell

RMcD:   Oh!  Gosh, that’s almost as hard to answer as what is the meaning of life!  I have pretty well grasped what the purpose of my role in music is.  I know my limitations enough to realize that I will never be a creator.  Maybe that’s the reason I play a lot of American music by living composers.  I have such great respect for the creators, and when I find something masterful, or really special, I’m honored to be the messenger.  That’s where my talent is.  It’s hard to articulate.  People have so many different ways of expressing what music has done for them.  In my case, I express myself with more articulation through music than I do with words.  You can wear your musical heart on your sleeve, and there’s nothing like it.  It’s hard to explain what really happens when you know that you’ve done justice to the great music that you’re performing. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s move over to technique just a little bit.  Do you adjust your technique at all for the different houses that you play in, or indeed when you’re playing outside as you are at Grant Park?

RMcD:   With venues like Grant Park and Ravinia, one has to understand that you should not force just because you’re in a big space.  If you trust the sound-system, you should be able to relax a lot more.  But when you’re in a dry hall, you also don’t want to force, because you’re going to hear everything.  The lesson here is don’t ever force!  [Both laugh]  But I really don’t change too much.  I’m blessed to have a great instrument, an Italian violin.  We don’t know who made it, but it’s Neapolitan from the turn of this century.

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  I can’t imagine having an instrument that you don’t know it’s history.

RMcD:   I know the history, I just don’t know who made it.  I know where it was made, and I know around the time, but it could have been one of two or three hundred makers.  It’s a copy of a Januarius [Gennaro] Gagliano.  Because of that, and because I have a great instrument, I know that it will speak well.

BD:   Do you always use the same instrument, or do you have two or three instruments around?

RMcD:   No, this is the only instrument I have.

BD:   Have you played on the big-name instruments by Stradivarius and others?

RMcD:   Oh sure, and this violin is better than most Strads, and most Del Gesùs.  I get more remarks from orchestra members saying that my violin has qualities of both Stradivarius and Del Gesù.  It has the sweetness of a Strad, and it has the punch and power of a Del Gesù.
BD:   So, this is the one everyone should try to copy!

RMcD:   Right... it’s just a fluke, but I’m so pleased to have it.  I must say I am looking at some Del Gesùs right now, but it’s going to be hard to find an instrument that matches the one I have.

BD:   Does the change of bow do a lot to alter the sound?

RMcD:   The bow I play is not an especially expensive one.  It was made in the 1930s by a man called Edgar Bishop from the Hill Shop [W. E. Hill & Sons] in London.  Of course, the Hill bows are very popular, but if I may use a golfing analogy, putters are very personal tools to have.  Golfers are very particular with their putters, and if it feels right, they’ll use it even if it’s from a yard sale.  I feel the same way about bows.  If it feels right, and if it pulls a great sound
the sound that you want to makeand if it does the things you want it to dolike bounce when it’s supposed tothen you’ve found the right bow.

BD:   Is your instrument good for all of the music that you play?

RMcD:   Yes, I think so.  When I play Bach, and maybe Mozart, I might have to adjust a little bit with the sound production.  I don’t want to punch out Bach and Mozart too much, like I do with other composers.  But it really is a wonderful instrument.  It takes almost everything I give it, and gives back as well.

BD:   Do you play the same for the recording microphone as you do for a public performance?

RMcD:   Yes!  If you start to tinker too much, your own personality is not going to come through.  The old saying,
‘go with what brought you here is the way I look at it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You play concertos, and chamber music, and solo recitals.  How do you divide your career amongst those?

RMcD:   Most of the chamber music is done in the summer at music festivals.  I’m off to Vancouver next week to play in the Vancouver Chamber Music Festival with colleagues.  I was a founding artist there, and I love going back. 
I also play a lot of chamber music at Aspen and other festivals like Caramoor, and in Europe occasionally.  It’s a little harder now going to the chamber festivals because it means that I’m away from my family.  I have two small children and a great wife...

BD:   This begs the other question, do you schedule enough time at home?

RMcD:   Luckily the whole family will spend the entire month of August in Aspen with me.  Then, when I’m off to Australia next season, I’ve convinced my wife to bring the family for a few weeks.  So it’s really not as bad as it sounds.  It gets tough after about eight or nine days, but I’m usually gone about that amount of time, and then back home.

BD:   Do you schedule enough time to learn new works, and to practice?

RMcD:   [Laughs]  Good question!  There is time enough to practice, but learning new works gets harder.  To learn a new piece, I need to have very few distractions.  I can’t concentrate when I know I have a Board Meeting to go to, or an Italian lesson to go to.  I would happily go to a school function for my daughter, but I really need that time alone to learn new music.
 It took me ten years to memorize the William Schuman Violin Concerto, but that is definitely an exception.

BD:   So, before you had it memorized, you played using the score?

RMcD:   Right, but I just didn’t feel comfortable.  That’s the only piece that’s ever affected me that way, because I’ve played every other concerto from memory.

BD:   What about something you haven’t played in a couple of years?  How long does it take to get it back into your memory?

RMcD:   Probably a month to really feel comfortable going on stage.  Or, maybe just one or two weeks.  I haven’t played the Bernstein in a few months, but I have played it so many times.  I just picked it up last week, and it was there.  It’s nice to be playing a concert and not being too stressed out about it.

BD:   Where’s home for you?

RMcD:   New York City.  We just love everything New York has to offer, and not being there all the time makes it even more attractive.  [Both laugh]  I’m from Georgia, and it is a lot different, but I have found the soul food restaurants in New York, so I get my collard green fix, and my fried chicken fix occasionally.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you expect to be at this age?

RMcD:   I think so.  Knowing how difficult it is to sustain a career in this day and age of really tough economic conditions, I must say I’m very, very grateful.  I just always wanted to be doing what I love to do, and I’m making a living at what I love to do.  I hear people say that sometimes, and it sounds corny, but it really is true.  I really enjoy expressing myself with the violin.

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success.

RMcD:   Thank you.


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See my interviews with Christoph Eschenbach, and Marin Alsop


Two items from my Rant Page

[October 16, 2021]  Occasionally, people notice that my name (DUFFIE) is spelled differently than usual.  As a young boy, I asked my father about it, but he just dismissed it with a shrug and a throw-away line about an ancestor being a horse-thief.  In any event, when heard and not seen, most people will assume it's DUFFY.  That has never bothered me, except when necessary... like directing people to my website!  There, the name needs to be spelled correctly.

When speaking with composers, or others involved with new music, they often asked if I was related to John Duffy.  A few even thought I was him!  John was a composer himself, who also founded Meet The Composer in 1974, and ran it until 1996.  When John and I eventually met, I distinctly remember that we both had to carefully write the other's name when scribbling our contact info.  I also interviewed the violinist Robert McDuffie, and there is a woman named Duffie Adelson, who ran the Merit School of Music in Chicago.  In college, after we music students learned about the early Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay (or Du Fay, pronounced doo-FYE, or dew-FY, in either case it rhymes with defy) (1397-1474), I was always called by that name.

What brought all this to my mind recently was watching baseball games of the Chicago Cubs.  (Yes, even after trading away several of their best players, I will still follow them, as I have since I was a kid.)   After being with other teams, the infielder Matt DUFFY signed with the Cubs for 2021.  It always pleased me to hear the TV announcers say his name, especially when he hit a home run, or made a spectacular fielding play.  As it happened, there were a couple of Cubs games against the Minnesota Twins.  (They don't play each other very often because they are in different leagues, but now, with inter-league contests, they do meet every few years.)  Until I happened to hear my family name spoken on the Twins' roster, I was unaware of pitcher Tyler DUFFEY.  Unfortunately, I didn't pay close enough attention at the time to know if DUFFEY pitched to DUFFY.  

After the fact, I e-mailed the Cubs to find out, but received no answer.  So, I sent the same e-mail to the Twins.  Again, no answer.  Finally, I contacted the Cubs Insider, an unofficial website.  Well, you guessed it, I got no response.  That's three strikes, so I'm out.  This is too bad, because it would have been fun to speculate about DUFFIE watching DUFFEY pitching to DUFFY.  Of course, the best would be if I was at Wrigley Field to catch a homer, or even a foul ball in this situation!  *sigh*

Oh well, as they say, "Wait 'til next year . . . . ."

[May, 2022]   Well, it's now 'next year', and DUFFY has been traded to the Los Angeles Angels.  *big sigh*

© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 14, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB a few weeks later, and again in 1998.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.