Though Philip Glass wrote his second violin concerto for Robert McDuffie, Charleston heard the chosen soloist perform something Glass did not originally intend.
Several years ago, McDuffie urged the composer to pen a work as a companion to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” a challenge Glass accepted, putting forth “The American Four Seasons.” When Glass heard McDuffie play his new work with a different interpretation than he originally intended, he embraced it.
And it’s hard to imagine an interpretation more invigorating and complete than McDuffie’s, heard during the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s first of three performances of their program, “From the New World” Thursday in the Sottile Theatre.
McDuffie has played Glass’s concerto more than 80 times since 2009, and is the only musician contractually allowed to perform the work. With a well-earned command over the piece, McDuffie presents this music as something raw and unadultered, yet seamless. He has a way of physically disconnecting from his instrument, lifting his chin and letting the violin play itself, or at least that is the way it looks — which is not to say he’s not expressive. One would be hard-pressed to name an emotion McDuffie did not exhibit; at times, he looked completely deranged. But the rendered music was always powerful and enticing. What a brilliant musician.
Before “The American Four Seasons,” McDuffie performed Vivaldi’s “Winter,” where the first taste of his clean, pure presentation enhanced an often over-played solo. Likewise, the orchestra showed impeccable taste, with effective emotional flares and crisp, precise embellishment. Truth be told, Vivaldi, like Glass, can be monotonous in its repetition, but the symphony played with prudence and grace.
On the podium was Morihiko Nakahara, whose clean and confident direction controlled the ensemble beautifully. Nakahara is not terribly decorative, but his excellent instincts were well received by the orchestra, and the teaming of the two entities was very fruitful. He pushed tempos in the Glass, which was exhilarating, and showed off especially in the closing symphony, Dvorak’s “From the New World.”
Julia Child was once compared to an orchestra’s conductor, but it works the other way around in the case of Nakahara. He has Child’s grace, purpose, and a distinct lack of pretense, and his result is intricate and absolute. The Dvorak was full of sparkling and tender moments, with all the heroism for which the piece is known. What is most striking about this piece is how the composer accomplished the same goals as Copeland — for his music to sound like America — but through different means. The breadth of emotion and technique heard from the orchestra was excellently done. Their ensemble is refining remarkably.