The Dinner Conversation

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Robert McDuffie - McDuffie Center For Strings - Part 1

This is one of the moments I love when it comes to working with the Moonhanger Group restaurants. I am a huge music fan, so to be able to sit down with one of the world's greatest violin soloists was about as good as it gets for me.

Robert McDuffie is a very accomplished musician. He studied at Juilliard. He has toured the world as one of the most sought after violin soloists playing today. He teamed up with composer Philip Glass to record Glass's Violin Concerto No. 2 “The American Four Seasons”. He is the head of Mercer University's McDuffie Center For Strings at the Townsend School Of Music. With all of that, if you ask me, the best thing about Robert McDuffie is, he's from right here in Macon, and he still loves his hometown.

McDuffie just took some of the very talented artists from the Center For Strings to New York where they performed “The American Four Seasons” at Le Poisson Rouge on February 4th.

I sat down to dinner with McDuffie in December around Christmas time. We had a wonderful conversation about music, his career, The Center For Strings, and Macon. This is just Part One in a multi-part conversation with violinist, Robert McDuffie.

RR: I saw you last Saturday at the Grand Opera House. It was really cool that PBS decided to come to Macon to record the concert. But, I'm sure you had a hand in making that happen. How did you do it?

RM: Actually this was a Mercer initiative. The McAfee family, who endowed the Townsend School of Music, wanted to do this for years. When I came on the scene six years ago they were still talking about it. I said, "Let's just be patient. Let's just wait til we have a real product to show." You don't have that second chance to make a first impression so you want it to be really good. It was then that I was dreaming of starting the Center For Strings. I knew it would be good eventually and even just after a few years I thought we sounded good enough to present to the country.

Larry Brumley
When Larry Brumley, the Senior Vice President for Marketing Communications at Mercer, was still at Baylor he used a production company called Brandenberg Productions that did Christmas At Baylor about 8 or 10 years ago. They did really good work. They do a lot of the Boston Pops specials. So they came in and produced the thing. Former musicians who are now heading up the company and had a really good track record. They're very well respected and I liked them a lot.

From what I understand GPB is going to use it as their pledge show December 2013. Then we're just going to just throw it out to 300 PBS channels around the country and see who picks it up. I was honored to be asked to MC the thing. I still love my home town and I'm proud of it. And I want more people to know about it.

**Just then our server, Michael Collins, visited our table to explain the menu. One of the items available for that day was a Southern Style Lasagne. The lasagne was completely crafted in house. It was made with smoked BBQ chipped pork, creamed collards, a ricotta cheese made by our Sous Chef, Dan Couch, corn meal noodles made by our Chef de Cuisine, Brad Stevens, and a tomato sauce made by our Executive Chef, Doug Sanneman. After Michael explained the new items, we turned to conversation on the Dovetail dining room.**

RM: This is a great room.

RR: Thanks. If you could only imagine what this room used to look like. This entire upstairs was all storage and junk and stuff that had been thrown in corners since 1976 when The Rookery first opened. It was nothing but saw dust and dirt. The idea came about after us doing all the Locavore Specials downstairs at The Rookery. People really took on to it so we began to think, 'Why don't we do an entire restaurant like this. We have all that room upstairs.' So we went to cleaning this space out and tearing it out. I wish I could put in your head what this room looked like before because watching it evolve, when the day finally came when it was ready I looked around and said, “I can't believe we did this.”

The coolest part is, the wood around the base of the bar, the wood behind the kudu head -the multicolored slats- and the wood in the wine cabinets in the private dining room is also multicolored, that's all wood where we tore out the floor to build the staircase. So that's all wood that we reclaimed to make some of the fixtures up here.

Amy Schwartz Moretti
RM: I have to tell Amy about this. Amy Schwartz Moretti, who runs The Center, she and her husband Steve Moretti would love this.

RR: Steve actually worked with a friend of mine, Floco Torres. He won the Gateway Macon, Macon Music contest.

RR: Yes he did.

RM: Well what do you think we should order? I'm not going to get too much. I think the tapas sounds like a good idea.

RR: Well my favorite is the Put-Ups. Why don't I order one of those and we can split it and then you can order one of the small plates and I'll do the same.

RM: Well we have to go with the lasagne, don't we?

RR: Go for it!

**As we finished deciding, Michael returned to take our order. McDuffie ordered the Southern Lasagne and I ordered the revamped Duck Breast that now comes with a rutabaga risotto. Sadly, I was so caught up in the conversation that I forgot to take a picture of the Southern Lasagne. Even worse the chefs only ran that dish that one day. - ): sorry! - After the orders were placed we began to talk about how the idea of the Center For String began to first take shape.**

RM: I wanted to bring something really great here. Kirby Godsey, who hired me back in 2004, said, “Just put Mercer and Macon on the national map in music.” Well, obviously not the music that Macon is famous for but classical music. I didn't know what that was going to be.

RR: How long had you been away before this opportunity came up?

RM: Oh, I've lived in New York for 38 years. I moved up there when I was 16.

RR: So, 16, you went to Juilliard and you never left New York. Was the city, for you, everything they said it would be?

RM: And still is. It's a privilege to live in New York. I may play in New York once or twice a year so I don't contribute to the city as a performer. Being a soloist, I'm just traveling most of the time. I've been doing that 30, 35 years.

So we worked out a situation where I would just come down once a month back in 2004 and see what could be done. So, I had my 3pm scotch on the veranda at the 1842 Inn, and played golf with my best friends, and saw my parents and just had a great time but I wasn't doing much because there wasn't much to do. There was a fledgeling string department but they weren't even music majors. They were education majors.

RR: You mentioned that you had your 3pm scotch. What's your favorite scotch?

RM: I'm not a big expert. I'll take a single malt. Glenlivet. I like a Knockando. I keep McCallan at home.

RR: You keep McCallan at home? What year?

RM: I'm cheap. 12!


RR: The reason I ask this is because earlier today Wayne (Temple our mixologist), Chef (Doug Sanneman), and I were talking about an article that I ran across. A guy in Atlanta paid $94 thousand dollars for a bottle of 55 year old Glenfiddich. Glenfiddich made this batch of scotch that they named after the granddaughter of the original Glenfiddich distiller. They've been holding it back. They have some in reserve. On her birthday this year they released a limited number of bottles to auction. At auction, this guy in Atlanta paid $94 thousand for this ONE bottle.

We sat down and we did the math on what it would cost if we had the bottle here and someone wanted one drink.

RM: And?

RR: With our normal percentage of mark-up, it would be $16,000 for one drink.

RM: I would have to borrow that money from Amy Schwartz Moretti, my director, to get that glass.

*more laughter*

RM: That's really crazy.

Well I think the 1842 Inn had Glenlivet. So I would just do my thing.

But then, it could have become a boondoggle for me down here. But I really just love the town. I got tired of hearing, “Macon has such potential.”

RR: Don't we all tire of hearing that.

RM: “It has such great bones. If only we could do something with Macon.” You know, all that kinda of stuff. And I realized how great Mercer was. How impressive both Kirby's and Bill Underwood's visions were for the school.

A lot of people like to say Kirby teed the ball up for Underwood and Underwood hit it 350 yards down the middle of the fairway. Underwood's initiatives were really impressive to me. I felt that if we could get something started here, it would not only help put Mercer and Macon on the map in not only in classical music but in education. We would be part of a rising tide of excellence that was happening. So that's when I decided to make the pitch to the university to start a conservatory for strings.

I identified ten of the top performers from around the country who were at the top of their professions. Concert masters of major symphony orchestras, principle cellists, major soloists, to great pedagogs and they bought into having a conservatory experience but with a specific curriculum that would prepare them for real life.

RR: That is fantastic. When you mentioned that Saturday, I could have jumped out of my seat. I wish every musician had the opportunity to go through that, no matter what the style of music is. To learn, this is what you need to know about what you're getting into. Yes you need to be able to play great music but you also need to know how to write a contract. How to read a contract...

RM: How to negotiate. How to raise money.

Musicians just aren't empowered in the real world. In many ways classical musicians, especially orchestra musicians are taken for granted. I just want my kids to be ready for whatever happens. I don't know exactly what's going to happen but I might be able to predict after having toured as a soloist with orchestras for 35 years and seeing how they work.

You've got a board of directors, a non-profit board, you've got the management, and at the bottom, you've got the musicians. The talent. Hopefully one day it will be inverted where it will be Musicians, board, management.

The chairman of the board of directors of a major non-profit, that's in charge of a symphony orchestra should be a member of the orchestra itself. A board, especially a non-profit board, who actually donates money to be on a board instead of receiving money if you're on a corporate board like American Express. These people want something beautiful to happen in their town, so they want to support the symphony orchestra.

They may not know how to pronounce or spell Prokofiev, or Shostakovich (Don't worry. I didn't know either. I had to look it up. -RR) but they want the right thing to be done and they want the experts to do it. They will follow any pied piper. I think that leader needs to come from the musicians. I think the world is shifting towards self governing orchestras right now instead of having boards and management decide so much.

As great as the musicians unions have been for us, especially during the 50s and 60s when the typical orchestra musician made $5000 a year. The unions saved us. They came in and fought for our rights. They fought for rehearsal rights, you know? It's kind of gone too far the other way now, where musicians are being treated and have allowed themselves to be treated as rank and file employees instead of as artists.

It's gotten to the point where management especially, in many cases are looking at the musicians – who have worked 4 hours a day since they were 6 years old to get to where they are – as airport baggage handlers, or as assembly line workers. They're not. They are artists. Artists who deserve to determine their own future but they need to have the tools to do it.

Nobody has the tools to do it! I went to Julliard I didn't know anything when I came out! I came out, there was nothing.

RR: Well, how did you get over the hump?

RM: Well, there was a much greater margin for error when I came out. Many more slots were available. Orchestras were doing pretty well. The NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) had given a lot of money to orchestras and I think that kind of backfired on them.

I'm talking about the symphonies even though there are so many facets of the music world. The large majority of conservatory graduates end up in symphony orchestras that's why I keep bringing them up.

The conversation continued on with more interesting stories from the world of music. Check back with us soon to read more about what the Center For Strings is teaching its students and where it is headed in the future, from my conversation with Robert McDuffie.


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