The stage is set and performances have begun in the heart of Rome, Italy, for the 20th Anniversary Rome Chamber Music Festival that runs through Thursday. The event was begun by Macon’s Robert McDuffie. Courtesy of The Rome Chamber Music Festival

The stage is set and performances have begun in the heart of Rome, Italy, for the 20th Anniversary Rome Chamber Music Festival that runs through Thursday. The event was begun by Macon’s Robert McDuffie.

Credit: Courtesy of The Rome Chamber Music Festival

Michael W. Pannell  for The Telegraph

The Rome (Italy) Chamber Music Festival — the festival founded by Macon’s Robert McDuffie 20 years ago — began Monday.

The internationally anticipated event draws musicians and audiences worldwide and, through Thursday, special celebrations are again being staged at the breathtaking Teatro Argentina performance hall in Rome’s historic center.

Built in the 1730s, the storied venue has hosted legendary performers and historical premiers including for Rossini’s 1816 opera, “Barber of Seville.”

Musical fare at the 20th-anniversary festival runs from Mozart to Mendelssohn, Shostakovich to Schubert and Tchaikovsky to American contemporary composer John Adams.

Of course, the festival showcases McDuffie’s violin virtuosity revealing why decades performing with the world’s leading musical organizations led to his solid superstar footing in the classical world.

A Macon native, McDuffie left at high school age to study at Juilliard in New York. Not many years after, while on sabbatical at the American Academy in Rome, McDuffie said he fell in love with the city. Lodging with his family in the Academy’s Villa Aurelia — built for Cardinal Girolarmo Farnese around 1650 — he said Rome deeply penetrated his psyche.

“It’s arguably the most beautiful city in the world,” he told me prior to leaving for the festival. “During my time at the Academy, having my family living and exploring the city with me, it became such a favorite. I knew I had to come back to the states but I knew l would return to Rome again and again.

“In a city filled with such musical history, there wasn’t a chamber music festival so I created a summer festival to bring the world’s greatest musicians to play the most beloved chamber music. I’m glad Rome has welcomed the festival in such a wonderful way. It’s turned out to be even more than I thought when we began in 2003.”

International and Italian tourist and cultural websites point to the chamber festival as not-to-be-missed and it has gained award after award while being endorsed by the embassies of the United States, Italy and the Holy See as well as the City of Rome and Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

As the Rome Chamber Music Festival’s Instagram and Facebook accounts show, 20th-anniversary festivities began early with pre-festival musical events, ceremonies and presentations. Iconic fashion designer and arts supporter Anna Fendi welcomed McDuffie to the city at one. Other welcomes and kudos came from the likes of Rome’s Vice Mayor Silvia Scozzese, composer-conductor Marcello Panni and former Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, to name only a few.

It’s repeatedly said Maestro McDuffie is an adopted Roman.

It’s easy to make the case for McDuffie’s status as a musician and advocate for the music he loves but it’s important to factor in that while McDuffie left Macon for the world stage, he never left Macon behind.

When given the opportunity to speak, he often speaks of Macon.

Though now based in New York, just look at what he’s done here. He began the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings with Mercer University, a conservatory for undergraduate, full-scholarship students where he teaches with other visiting virtuosos.

Look at the many concerts featuring world-class performers drawn to Macon and Mercer through the weight of his reputation then presented at no cost to students and low cost to the community. Look at the wholly unique Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra and its ability to draw Atlanta Symphony players who perform alongside Center for Strings students for a mind-blowing educational opportunity that delights local audiences.

Or look at his bringing the likes of R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and the Allman Brothers/Rolling Stones’ Chuck Leavell to Macon’s Grand Opera House stage for “A Night of Georgia Music,” which was recorded and is now being televised nationally.

Center for Strings students performed for that as well.

And look at the clear genius of bringing Amy Schwartz Moretti to Macon in 2007 to direct the Center with her own violin versatility, virtuosity and status.

Moretti will also be featured on stage in Rome.

I asked McDuffie to compare and contrast the festival’s first year with this year. He noted the festival’s shift to make room for the world’s most promising young students, including many from Macon and the Center for Strings.

While the Rome Fest first concentrated simply on bringing the best of the best players together, it now brings them to mentor and spotlight up-and-coming artists.

While the festival may showcase McDuffie, he’s redirected the spotlight.

Mary Pinson is the board chair of the Center for Strings and a floral designer operating Macon’s Mary Pinson Flower Studio. A non-musician, she’s one of a larger-than-usual Macon contingent heading to Rome to celebrate 20 years. She’s in a good position to observe why we should be talking about the festival in Macon.

“The connection between Macon and the Rome Festival is real and strong,” she said. “Bobby is unashamed, excited even, to talk about the Center and being from Macon wherever he goes. When he’s interviewed, you can tell he’s passionate about Rome but loves Macon as well. It’s amazing that at this stage in his career he could easily just travel and play with the world’s best symphonies without any care instead of working day and night as he does for young people, his students, the Center and really for Macon.

“What he does out there helps bring a greater culture to Macon and the opportunity to see and hear amazing music and musicians here. When he’s here, he engages people and when he’s traveling he’s telling famous friends, ‘Hey, I’m a guy from Macon, Ga.’”

So why talk here — in admitted flowery ways — about a chamber music festival 5,000 miles away? One, it’s a time to celebrate the 20th anniversary so, why not? As local photographer Dsto Moore always advises: give those flowers and bouquets while they mean something.

And two, it’s good to be reminded that Macon’s cultural reach goes far beyond its natural borders. We can learn a lesson and be there for those who’ve taken it out there and for those whose stars are just beginning to shine.

And take note of this, too: Macon200, the bicentennial campaign celebrating Macon’s 200th year, will celebrate the coming Juneteenth holiday and Black Music Month by releasing a song/music video recorded at Capricorn Sound Studios to serve as the bicentennial anthem.

The release is June 14 at 5 p.m. at The Capitol Theatre, 382 Second St., with an after-party following featuring Charles Davis and the Velvet Sound, Reese Soul and CMD Styles. It’s free and open to the public.

Contact writer Michael W. Pannell at

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Telegraph.

Tags: Music  Italy  Macon  Georgia  Atlanta