Where It All Begins: Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie Bring ‘Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra’ to Macon Oct. 27

Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie

Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie

Two sons of Macon are coming home for an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind musical collaboration as Bragg Jam presents Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra on Oct. 27, 2016 at Macon City Auditorium.

 The performance will feature virtuoso violinist Robert McDuffie who commissioned childhood friend Mike Mills to compose the piece. The two met around age 12 when The Mills family, transplants from California, joined Macon’s First Presbyterian Church where McDuffie’s mother was the music director.

“My parents chose the church based on the music program,” says Mills. “They thought [Susan McDuffie] was the best they could find down there.”

The boys performed together in the church junior choir and handbell choir before going their separate ways—Mills off to the University of Georgia where he and fellow Maconian Bill Berry would form R.E.M. with Michael Stipe and Peter Buck. McDuffie was off to Julliard and on to become a Grammy-nominated violin virtuoso.

And while Mill’s R.E.M. is heralded as the musical patron saint of Athens, Georgia, McDuffie’s name has grown synonymous with the musical legacy of Macon.

In 2007 he opened the prestigious McDuffie Center for Strings in the Townsend School of Music at Mercer University where tomorrow’s stars have the opportunity to perform, collaborate and record with the world’s finest orchestras, string ensembles and conductors. The conservatory recently moved into a new home befitting its distinguished scholars—The Bell House at 315 College St. McDuffie calls the 1855 Victorian home “a magical and historical venue” that will serve as an “inspirational home for the talented students of the Center….” It also happens to feature the front porch made famous on the cover of the Allman Brother’s debut album.

And while it might seem an unlikely juxtaposition, Southern rockers sharing a historical home with classically trained elite, it stands as a perfect parallel to McDuffie and Mill’s concerto.

After touring the world and soloing with almost every major orchestra, from the London Philharmonic Orchestra to the National Concert Hall in Taipei, McDuffie yearns for creative challenge. He wants to push the boundaries of classical music by injecting some modern grit into the mix.

“Just selfishly,” admits McDuffie, “I’ve always wanted to reach out to living American composers instead of playing the same pieces over and over again by dead white European males.” That desire inspired McDuffie to commission Philip Glass to compose an American version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” With that genre-bending experience under his belt, McDuffie set his sights on collaborating with his old friend.

“I…threw out this crazy idea about writing a concert for violin, rock band and orchestra.” Adds McDuffie, laughing, “I was just scared because I didn’t know what his reaction would be!”

At the time of the proposal Mills was at a crossroads in his career. After 31 years, R.E.M. had amicably parted ways, and he had to decide whether he wanted to retire or continue making music. But there’s really no turning the music off when you’re as prolific an artist as Mills. In fact, Mills already had a melody in his head that he thought would be perfect for the project, and the drive to collaborate with his dear friend was too good to pass up.

And so, Mills got to work composing his first concerto.

“It’s a very intimidating thing because some of the crowd will be classical fans, I assume, and they have some pretty exacting standards,” says Mills. And on this flip side, Mills acknowledges that rock and pop fans may feel intimidated by classical music.

“People are scared of classical music because they are afraid they won’t understand it and others around them will,” he muses. “You never want to be the person who starts clapping before the piece is over. The concept of movements with only silence between them is intimidating because when you go to a [rock] show, you play a song, you clap, you yell, you get a drink and then you play another song. I’m hoping to break that down.”

This performance, Mills insists, will be different.

“It’s not going to be stuffy,” he says. “I don’t plan to wear a tuxedo. It should be more fun than a classical concert…because this is not a classical piece. It is a hybrid of classical and rock and roll. I want it to have the good parts of both and hopefully the bad parts of neither.”

In October of 2015, Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie recorded "Concerto for Rock Band Violin and Rock Band" at Studio 1093 in Athens, Georgia, with studio musicians and 14 Robert McDuffie Center for Strings students.

In October of 2015, Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie recorded “Concerto for Rock Band Violin and Rock Band” at Studio 1093 in Athens, Georgia, with studio musicians and 14 Robert McDuffie Center for Strings students.

Throughout the writing process, McDuffie has encouraged Mills to inject a good bit of “R.E.M. DNA” into this work.

“I wanted a kickass opening much like what they did with the Accelerate album,” says McDuffie. “In-your-face Mike Mills music.” That intro will segue into a movement that should be instantly recognizable to R.E.M. fans.

“If Shostakovich could steal from himself, I asked Mike if he could just include ‘Nightswimming’ as one of the movements,” laughs McDuffie.

Mills says that “Nightswimming,” as a rock song that incorporates strings, serves as a “little stepping stone across the river between classical and rock.” In the concerto, it will lead to what McDuffie has described as a “stunning” waltz.

Online footage from an early rehearsal, which includes students from McDuffie’s Center for Strings, reveals an exhilarating performance underscored by rich piano textures, McDuffie’s fiery bowing and propulsive rock rhythms. One adventurous movement makes way into a more romantic progression, with both Mills and McDuffie’s undeniable gifts taking the spotlight.

“We are in the trenches together,” says McDuffie, “Nobody is backing anyone up.” Adds Mills, “I don’t think anyone has done anything like this before.”

In addition to the Oct. 27 performance at Macon City Auditorium, Georgia dates on the limited tour include Oct. 24 in Athens at Hugh Hodgson Hall at the University of Georgia and Oct. 28 in Atlanta at Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts – Emory University in Atlanta.

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