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'Four Seasons' is new again, thanks to Philip Glass and Robert McDuffie

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 12, 2010 - Soon after I hung up the phone from talking to violin virtuoso Robert McDuffie about his appearance at Washington University's 560 Music Center on Oct. 15, I dialed up Webster Records.

"Any idea how many different recordings of Antonio Vivaldi's 'The Four Seasons' are available," I asked. The person who'd answered the call gave a sigh that signaled "Hopeless" to me. The way to find out, she said, was to go to Amazon and type in the name of the piece and the name of the composer. That should provide a number.



The number came up in a jiffy: 1,585. I didn't believe it. So I started going through the list, and by the time I landed on the page that showed 109-120, I gave up. After I got through with that exercise I went over to YouTube where there are also a jillion clips of performances, including a number of renditions played on a variety of instruments, including the accordion.

Just as Pachebal's "Canon in D" and Bach's "Air on the G String" have been reduced to treacle by overplaying and being belched forth from concertinas and kazoos, so too has Vivaldi's actually quite marvelous "Four Seasons" saturated the sonosphere. But for an artist such as McDuffie, who has great affection for what he describes as the most overplayed work on the planet, he wanted to play something with kinship to the Vivaldi masterpiece - related but different.

The answer came from the contemporary composer Phillip Glass. Glass's work, while despised by some as minimalist to the point of tedium, is in fact enormously satisfying and modernist. It is composed, however, without the fingernails-on-the-blackboard motifs that make so much post-Schoenbergian music so excruciating.

Glass is no stranger to St. Louis. His "Concerto for Two Timpani" was commissioned in part by the St. Louis Symphony and was performed here, with Glass in attendance, in April 2001. Last month, Glass music accompanied dance performed by Madco, the now-venerable modern dance company, in its season opener.

The new work is Glass's Violin Concerto No. 2 - "The American Four Seasons," and the instrumentation is identical to Vivaldi's "Four," with the exception of the substitution of a synthesizer for the harpsichord. Glass's concerto has four movements; Vivaldi's has a dozen.

But the most definable difference is that "The American Four Seasons" is easily distinguished from the 1723 Baroque monument. In 2009, Glass was quoted as saying, "The original idea was that this new work would be somewhat based on Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons.' I used Vivaldi's piece as a point of inspiration, but there are many differences between Vivaldi's work and 'The American Four Seasons' that allow the new composition to not be defined solely by the original work."

McDuffie's account of the collaboration with Glass was rhapsodic. "I fell in love with his (Glass's) music in the mid-'90s, when I heard his first violin concerto," he said. Glass's Violin Concerto No. 1 was first performed in 1987, and was recorded by McDuffie in 1999.

"I wanted to hear the 'Four Seasons' by Glass, and I wanted to call it 'The American Four Seasons.' Everybody loved the idea," McDuffie continued. And most important, "Philip loved the idea."

The American premiere was given at the Aspen Music Festival this summer. Marin Alsop conducted. She has St. Louis connections, too, having conducted "Nixon in China" in 2004. Previously, in 1994, she held the creative conductor chair at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

On Thursday (Oct. 14), McDuffie begins a 30-city tour with the Venice Baroque Orchestra, performing both "Four Seasons," the old one and the new one. The St. Louis performance is Friday at Washington University's 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity at Delmar, in the University City Loop. The concert is featured in the university's Edison Theatre "Ovations" series.

Although the Vivaldi and Glass pieces are performed back to back, "Vivaldi is secondary to what this tour is all about, which is to present a major piece by a major composer," McDuffie said.

McDuffie said, "It took a while for it to happen, but I wanted him to write it." He said he asked for a "kick ass" rock 'n' roll ending, and in addition to that, Glass produced "one of the most beautiful slow movements I have ever heard."

There is a commercial edge to all of this. McDuffie is thrilled that his management cut a good deal for exclusivity. He is happy to take the show on the road, continuing a series of concerts of "The American Four Seasons" that began in Toronto, London and Rome before receiving its American premiere at Aspen.

The evening before McDuffie and I talked, a sold out CD preview party was held at Le Poisson Rouge, a nightclub on Bleeker Street in downtown Manhattan. "I've been sitting on a gold mine," he said. The recording, on the Orange Mountain Music label, is to be released Tuesday (Oct. 12).

While any artist is happy when his art pays dividends, the usual and more satisfying bounce is back to what really matters, and in this case it is the music.

"I am unbelievably honored to play this piece," McDuffie said, "It is a privilege."

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.