McDuffie belongs to the new school of violinists better heard than seen.
For his third visit as guest soloist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, violinist Robert McDuffie brought something substantial: one of the finest concertos of the 20th century, that by the American neo-Romantic, Samuel Barber.
Unfortunately, McDuffie belongs (along with the likes of Joshua Bell and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg) to the new school of violinists better heard than seen. Friday night in Overture Hall, his clowning, his pretentious mugging and posturings, were needlessly distracting. (The orchestra's first violin section was nearly pushed off the stage to give him a space for his prancing about.)
As it happens, McDuffie is a superb player, with utter precision and an eloquent tone, but you can appreciate all that only if you close your eyes. His accomplishment was almost erased when, with vulgar glee, he dragged the orchestra into a repetition of the concerto's frenetic final movement, just to prove he really can do it again. Who is going to tell him to grow up -- to develop bearing to match his artistry? Barber's concerto was almost lost in the antics.
Framing it were two orchestral pieces of contrasting scope. Dvorak's "Carnival Overture" is the glitzy item among three otherwise very powerful concert pieces by the composer, meant to be called Nature, Life, and Love as a set. (The other two, "In Nature's Realm" and "Othello" are not heard nearly as often, but have a lot more to offer and deserve attention). But Dvorak's inherent craftsmanship won out over the pizzazz, and MSO music director John DeMain brought the orchestra through a rousing presentation of the piece.
By comparison, Beethoven's Third Symphony, the "Eroica," is one of the great landmarks in the entire symphonic literature. The longest and most daring work up to its creation, it caused a rethinking of the symphonic writing that followed it, while its daring and inventiveness still seem overwhelming even to our jaded ears.
DeMain chose to stress that daring in his interpretation, one of propulsive energy and surging power. In such an approach, the first movement can still take one's breath away, and the "Funeral March" second movement became almost a mini-drama in itself within its freely treated rondo form. The scherzo was like a brisk run through the woods. The finale, using a dance tune on which Beethoven made previous variations, was made to sound like a workout beyond which the material can never be taken any further. A bracing performance, able to make you rediscover a workhorse masterpiece all over again!
The program will be repeated Saturday evening at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.