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10th Duffy Institute Still Turning Out Masterworks

this is a photo of composer John Duffy during his instituteJohn Duffy instructing young composers

John Duffy has won two Emmys and is widely regarded as one of America's most accomplished and versatile composers of music for operas, musical theater, cinema and television. At 87, he still has abundant creative energy, enough to hold the rapt attention of beginning composers. And that's exactly what he is doing during the last two weeks of May at Old Dominion University.

The John Duffy Composers Institute, in its 10th year as a production of the Virginia Arts Festival in collaboration with ODU, has brought together six rising-star artists from throughout the country to study with Duffy and a faculty of established creative talent in music, dance, voice and theater direction. Libby Larsen, a Grammy Award winning composer, is Duffy's longtime sidekick as a leader of the institute.

Two free concerts, May 28 and 29, will give the public a chance to witness the fruits of the institute. The Virginia Arts Festival notes that these finale concerts have been exceedingly popular in the past and that patrons should arrive early in order to get seats.

"Martinis and Masterworks: Orchestra Reading," at 7:30 p.m. on May 28, will present portions of works of two second-year institute fellows, Rachel Peters and Zach Redler, both of Brooklyn, N.Y. The works will be performed by members of the Virginia Symphony. That event, which will include a cocktail reception, will be at the Robin Hixon Theater in the Clay and Jay Barr Education Center at Tidewater Community College in downtown Norfolk.

On the next night, also at 7:30, and in Chandler Hall of Diehn Fine and Performing Arts Center on the ODU campus, "Masterworks in the Making: Concert of Premieres" will present staged segments of works by the four first-year institute fellows performed by professional singers and pianists.

John Toomey, professor and chair of ODU's Department of Music, said that Duffy's dedication to education is an "inspiration." The composer was awarded an honorary degree by ODU in 2013.

"Our students are hired as interns at the institute to shadow both the composers and performers, providing a unique behind-the-scenes experience for our kids. It's a rather special program, perhaps one of the only ones in the states," Toomey added. "Even though John Duffy is a huge name, he is the kindest and most approachable person I have ever met."

Duffy's connections to eastern Virginia go back to the 1960s when he married Dorothy Rouse-Bottom, an owner and editor of The Daily Press newspaper on the Peninsula. The couple divorced some years later, but remained friends up until her death in 2011. Duffy maintains a home in Norfolk, but spends quite a bit of time in the Northeast, particularly New York City, which is the seat of most of his professional accomplishments.

Duffy said he wasn't sure how the institute would turn out when he agreed in 2005 to launch it. "But it sure has blossomed into something special," he said. "So far, about 85 fellows have attended the institute and it's amazing the way each one has taken works developed here and had them performed" in venues all over the world, he said during a break at an institute seminar he was delivering on Shakespeare.

What does Shakespeare have to tell young composers? Plenty, Duffy told the six fellows. For example, in Hamlet, Shakespeare shows masterful trust in his imagination and ability to "stretch the drama."

The ghost of Hamlet's father is an imaginative touch. "Perhaps in wanting to be realistic we don't let enough ghosts into our work, not enough magic," Duffy said. And in Hamlet, the ghost also helps to stretch the drama. "So the ghost of his father appears to Hamlet (early in the play) and tells him, 'Your uncle killed me.' Hamlet goes and gets his sword and kills the uncle. Bam, the play is over. No, Shakespeare needed to stretch drama." The fact that it's a ghost that incriminates the uncle "makes Hamlet cautious. How can he be sure?" So the play goes on.