As first season of Macon-Mercer Symphony ends, success measured by impact on students


McDuffie Center for Strings cellist Sara Scanlon gets a moment of direction from Macon-Mercer Symphony conductor Ward Stare during one of the orchestra’s early rehearsals. The final concert of the first season is Monday.

Special to The Telegraph

From day one, those around the Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra stressed it’s first and foremost about students – particularly the students of Mercer University’s Robert McDuffie Center for Strings. The new venture is an educational one but its benefits to students and community audiences are co-joined.

The Macon-Mercer Symphony is designed as a unique learning and performance collaboration of the 26 students of the McDuffie Center and professional artists of the Atlanta Symphony. The orchestra’s first season of four concerts at the Grand Opera House ends Monday featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, the winning results of Mercer’s Townsend School of Music’s Concerto Competition and a guest performance by Macon’s hip-hop star Bob Lennon.

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“What’s so special about the Center for Strings’ program is we really do offer our students a wide variety of musical experiences at a very high level,” said Ward Stare. Stare serves as the orchestra’s conductor, is a distinguished artist (teaching faculty member) at the McDuffie Center, and is an accomplished conductor and musical director having served in Rochester, NY, St Louis and internationally.

“Getting the grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation to bring Atlanta’s winds and brass to join our strings students was groundbreaking,” he said. “The concept that students work hard to learn something like a Beethoven symphony then perform it on stage in an outstanding orchestra with experienced professionals is unheard of. We’re not aware of anything like it.”

Throughout the season, the center’s leadership and others have had their say, but since the focus is on students, what does a student say?

Sara Scanlon, 21, graduates in May after four years at the center receiving a Bachelor’s degree in cello performance. Scanlon attended Mercer on scholarship, as all McDuffie Center students do, and will go for her Master’s degree at the famed Juilliard School, also on full scholarship.

She is well regarded at the center and her abilities spoken highly of in the community where she has often played at events and at North Macon Presbyterian Church.

As it happens, graduation day is her birthday. Her thoughts are genuine not only of her experience with the Macon-Mercer Symphony but of the McDuffie Center and the opportunities afforded there.

“The Atlanta musicians are some of the best in the world,” she said. “To perform with them has been amazing. I mean, I grew up in Connecticut 10 minutes away from Yale. My parents would take me to concerts there at a young age and that’s where I found my passion and first heard live performances at such a high level.

“Being among such musicians is a dream come true. It takes a lot of work – a lot of work. You should see my schedule with classes, performances, rehearsals and all. But Robert McDuffie and Amy Moretti don’t just require the work but are inspiring and keep alive the idea that playing music is supposed to be fun. At some places, I think you lose that.”

McDuffie, of course, is the Macon-native and international violin virtuoso who founded and teaches at the center. Moretti is also an acclaimed violinist who is the center’s director.

Not taking away from playing with Atlanta the symphony, Scanlon enlarged the experience by adding Moretti’s involvement with a smaller group of Atlanta players meant an opportunity for her to play in that setting as well.

“It was Ms. Moretti and an oboist, clarinet and harpist,” she said. “Working with them one-on-one and with the symphony players is eye-opening. They work so fast and so detailed. Just seeing how they take time to breathe and getting to be in touch with them brings your level up. We learn so much. It’s the only school I know of doing this.”

Scanlon said she realizes she’s been taught not only to play with excellence but prepared for a career as a professional musician in the modern world.

Trained by a dedicated, highly engaged faculty, she mentioned a shortlist of added opportunities she’s had:

  • Performing in the school’s Fabian Concerts which brings outstanding international performers and composers to Mercer and the community
  • Touring in the string section of “A Night of Georgia Music” featuring McDuffie, Allman Brothers-Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell and R.E.M. bass player Mike Mills
  • Performing around the county with various classical groups in concerts
  • Performing local concerts and recitals

I can’t begin to list all the names of musicians Scanlon is in awe of she said she had the opportunity to meet, learn from and play alongside.

And, oh yes, how about that she got to travel with several other students to the Rome (Italy) Chamber Music Festival where she heard fine music, yes, but was also a performer.

“We began the opening night in Rome then played in Florence,” she said. “We played in such beautiful places. In Florence, we were playing and you could look around and see statues by Michelangelo. The musicians were some of the world’s best and they treated us as peers. Talking with them, learning from them and making connections with them was unbelievable.”

Does she feel prepared for Juilliard, the school that trained many of her heroes?

“I do feel prepared,” she said. “I think the center has done a great job with me. The things I’ve learned are irreplaceable. That plus the things they’ve built into my life as a person. This is the best possible place I could have come. I didn’t relish moving to the south at first but I fell in love on my first visit. I will definitely miss Mercer and Macon.”

After Juilliard, Scanlon hopes to perform with chamber orchestras but is leaving all possibilities open. She’s already set to perform with such a group while at Juilliard. That’s the sort of thing the center encourages: prepare, then make a way for yourself and your music. She hopes later in life to get a doctorate and become a teaching professor. She’s learned a lot about that here, too.

“I know I’ve been cared about as a person here – nurtured,” she said. “Some places it’s like you’re thrown in and it’s, ‘May the best musician win.’ Here, I feel I’ve learned how to succeed as a person and as a person.”

As for his part Monday, Lennon’s performance will feature a song he composed that was commissioned specifically for the concert. It’s called, “Don’t You Look at Me.”

More on Lennon another time, but know he said the song reflects attitudes and the way some people view him and others like him in the wider community. It’s not always favorable.

“Honestly, I was flustered when first asked to perform with the symphony, it was kind of surreal,” he said. “But the closer it gets the more honored I feel and even unworthy. It’s already opened a lot of doors and will give me the chance to show a lot of people who I already rub shoulders with what I actually do as an artist. I’m not sure they know. Bobby McDuffie asked me to write a piece from my perspective. He said it was OK to ruffle a few feathers.

“I’ve been to a number of the symphony concerts and admit a young black guy like me with thick dreads gets some looks, you know. But this piece says I belong here as much as you guys. People may find it challenging but at the same time, I realized writing it that I was being challenged, too. Maybe some people aren’t thinking what I think they are.”

Contact Michael W. Pannell at

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