McDuffie’s camp recruits teens for ambitious string program

One wore a tie-dyed T-shirt. Another wore flip-flops. There were four teenagers in the rehearsal room, and on the surface they looked like a typical, casual group of young people.

When they applied their bows to their instruments, however, the sound that came out was anything but typical.

It was the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 6 in F Minor; eight minutes of pulsing rhythms and dramatic flourishes. It sounded like something on public radio.

But there was no applause when they finished. The only feedback came from their coach, renowned concert violinist Robert McDuffie.

“Great, man!” McDuffie said. “Y’all are just about ready. You know the notes, now we actually bring more life to the piece.”

McDuffie then proceeded to coax excellent out of merely great.

“This is a very well-behaved group. I want you to misbehave a little bit. ... You need to be brash.”

The quartet began to play again.

“The hairpins need to be more exaggerated,” McDuffie said. “I’m feeling it’s just a speed bump on a smooth road. Much more! Get my stomach all queasy! That’s it!”

The coaching session took place Sunday afternoon at Mercer University’s McCorkle Music Building. It was the fourth day of the fifth annual Robert McDuffie & Friends Labor Day Festival for Strings, a camp for 16 of the most talented high school string musicians in the country. The camp culminates this afternoon with a free concert.

The Labor Day Festival for Strings is a recruitment tool for the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings, a program at Mercer that McDuffie, a Macon native, founded three years ago.

McDuffie said his goal is for the center to be “on the short list of the brand-name conservatories in the nation.” The center has recruited a roster of well-known soloists and orchestra members from around the country who visit Mercer on a rotating basis to augment the instruction students get from regular faculty members. These artists, including McDuffie, also give concerts during their visits to Macon.

The Center for Strings now has 16 students, but McDuffie has plans to increase that number to 26. He also plans to move the program to an antebellum mansion on College Street and to introduce the center to the national media in April 2011 with a big event including Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano.

“I think Macon deserves a cultural renaissance, and I think I have the bully pulpit to make that happen,” McDuffie said.

McDuffie, 51, lives in Manhattan and performs as a soloist all over the world.

He has been nominated for a Grammy and made headlines for the violin he plays, a 1735 Guarneri del Gesu instrument worth $5 million. McDuffie, whose parents live in Macon, visits Mercer about once a month to work at the Center for Strings.

Violinist Caeli Smith, 17, came to Macon from Philadelphia to participate in her second Labor Day Festival.

“We get to be coached and we are given master classes by some of the most respected performers of today,” said Smith, who is home-schooled and studies in the Pre-College Program of the Juilliard School. “And it’s always fun to get together with three kids your age and make music.”

Smith was part of the quartet rehearsing the Mendelssohn piece. The camp participants were divided into four quartets, each with a movement of a chamber music composition to rehearse for today’s concert. The concert also includes two pieces performed by all the students and faculty together, including McDuffie.

Smith said she plans to apply to the McDuffie Center for Strings.

“For someone who wants a small school, with lots of attention from faculty members, it’s a good place,” she said.

Camp participants sleep at a local hotel and eat at restaurants on the Mercer campus. All room, board and instruction is free; the young musicians must pay only for transportation to Macon.

Violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti is the director of the McDuffie Center for Strings. She organized the Labor Day Festival and selected the 16 participants by evaluating auditions recorded on DVDs. She said three or four camp members usually end up attending the Center for Strings for their college careers. She also said the annual festival concert usually draws a big crowd.

“It’s really exciting, having these high school students perform and seeing how well they play,” Moretti said. “And it’s fun for the students to play something so challenging.”