R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and violinist Robert McDuffie join forces for classical rock concerto
August 11, 2016
If You Go …
What: An Eclectic Evening with Robert McDuffie and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, presented by the Aspen Music Festival and School
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Thursday, Aug. 11, 7 p.m.
How much: $35-$60
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Hall box offices; http://www.aspenmusicfestival.com
More info: The program will include John Adams’ “Road Movies” and Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” followed by Mills’ Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra
Childhood friends who embarked on groundbreaking — though very different — music careers, Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie, will reunite on-stage at the Benedict Music Tent tonight.
Mills, the bassist for R.E.M. through its 31 years, has composed the genre-bending new "Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra," featuring his old friend, the virtuoso violinist and Aspen favorite.
"It's a sort of blending of two kinds of music that I love," Mills, 57, said Tuesday afternoon in Wheeler Park.
Tonight's performance will feature McDuffie on violin, Mills on bass with a rock band and a 17-piece string ensemble made up mostly of Aspen Music Festival and School students conducted by William Kunhardt.
Mills and McDuffie were middle and high school classmates in Macon, Georgia. McDuffie left high school early to attend Juilliard, but the pair kept in touch as their musical stars rose through the decades.
"We kept up," Mills said. "Just the occasional conversation, which was tough for a lot of those years because he was so busy and I was so busy. But our moms kept in touch and they let us know what the other was up to. … We really started hanging out again 10, 12 years ago when our careers allowed us to have time."
The concerto is their first collaboration, unless you count their boyhood choir performances. McDuffie floated the idea for the concerto about two years ago, and Mills got to work writing. He composed the band's parts (as he did for many R.E.M. songs) and worked closely with arranger David Malamud on writing for the instruments he'd never tackled before: violin and string ensemble.
The concerto debuted earlier this summer with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Mills is hoping it reaches a cross-section of classical music listeners and rock fans.
"I'm sure some concert folks will love it and some will be offended, some rock people will love it and some will find it boring," he said. "There's no way to tell. We're doing this for ourselves, really, for the enjoyment of playing together and trying new things — just the satisfaction of doing something that hasn't been done before."
They plan to record and release the concerto this fall, when a 12-date tour of classical venues is on the books.
Finishing new music, then taking on the road is not so dissimilar to the routine Mills grew accustomed to with R.E.M. Yet it's still unfamiliar terrain.
"I have no idea what it's going to be like," he said. "It's uncharted territory. And, in my case, it's only a half-hour a night, as opposed to R.E.M. playing two hours a night. But otherwise a tour is a tour. Similar pressures apply no matter what you're doing."
Mills noted that symphonic covers of rock music have become relatively commonplace, pointing to Metallica's "S&M" album with the San Francisco Symphony and an R.E.M. covers record by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. But a full rock band being utilized in the composition of an original concerto is a novel approach.
"Hopefully it'll be organic in a way that some of that other stuff isn't," he said.
The son of an operatic tenor, Mills grew up in a classical-heavy household where opera was often on the record player.
"I fell asleep to Franco Corelli and all that," he said.
As a kid, Mills played tuba in the school concert band and sousaphone in the marching band — but only because playing in those groups was a prerequisite for performing with the jazz band. By the time R.E.M. took off in the early 1980s, he'd left any classical aspirations behind. Since the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers disbanded in 2011, Mills has dabbled in a number of new projects — the most ambitious of which is the new concerto.
"I'm happy with where it is, and I'm not easy to please," he said. "It's the kind of thing that, should it become popular, we could do for the rest of our lives. But do I want to write more concerti? Not at this point. But who knows. It was fascinating and challenging and interesting, but I'm not thinking about anything in the future now."