Touring with a rock icon can be a humbling experience.
“This is kind of how it goes,” Robert McDuffie said of the meet and greets that follow his shows with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills. “So they go to him first, and you hear: ‘You changed my life. Your music has changed my life. Thank you for changing my life.’ And then they look at me and go, ‘Oh, and you were really good.’”
In fact, McDuffie is a world-renowned violinist and every bit Mills’ equal—in the world of classical music.
They’ve been friends since their childhood days in Macon, Georgia. While Mills went to the University of Georgia in Athens and formed one of the most successful alternative rock bands of all time, McDuffie went to the Juilliard School, has recorded seven albums and co-founded the Rome Chamber Music Festival.
They’ve stayed connected through the years.
“I think we love being part of each other’s worlds,” McDuffie said this week during a phone interview with AltDaily, “and we respect each other and each other’s worlds.”
In fact, Mills was one of 16 investors who helped McDuffie purchase his 280-year-old Guarneri del Gesù violin back in 1998. “I couldn’t write a $3.5 million check,” McDuffie explained. “Mike Mills was one of the investors, so I’m playing his violin on stage. We put a pick-up mic on it, so now it’s a Guarneri on steroids. It is so cool.”
Three years ago, after collaborating with Philip Glass on a recording of “Violin Concerto No. 2: ‘The American Four Seasons,’” McDuffie decided to approach Mills with an idea.
“I basically needed another fix and wanted to go even farther out of my comfort zone,” he said. “Having known Mike for so long and just being passionate about his music and his band’s music—I just took a deep breath and went up to see him where he lives in Athens and proposed the idea of him writing a rock concerto for violin and rock band—extreme orchestra—and he was all in. We both felt it was going to be a challenge for both of us, and by the end of the dinner, he said, ‘I’ve already got a tune in my head.’”
The result of Mills’ efforts is “Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra.” It includes six movements with names just quirky enough to make R.E.M. fans’ hearts skip a beat: “Pour It Like You Mean It,” “On the Okeefenokee,” “Sonny Side Up,” “Stardancers’ Waltz,” “Nightswimming” and “You Can Go Home Again.”
McDuffie specifically asked Mills to include “Nightswimming,” a ballad from one of his favorite R.E.M. albums, “Automatic for the People.” “I told him: If Shostakovich can steal from himself, why can’t Mike Mills steal from himself?” he said. “And Stravinsky stole from everybody. So why can’t Mike steal from himself and put one of his great, iconic tunes in his concerto?”
(For what it’s worth, McDuffie is also a devout fan of R.E.M.’s last album, “Collapse Into Now.” “I’m proud of them for doing that last album. It’s meaningful music. I think it’s a real serious album.”)
David Mallamud did the final arranging of the concerto.
“David is a major partner in this whole experience,” McDuffie said. “Mike is the first to tell you he’s not going to notate intricate orchestra parts or write violin licks. The music is Mike’s, but we certainly wanted and needed someone of Mallamud’s ability to complete it.”
They debuted the concerto in Toronto in June. Two more performances followed—in Rome and Aspen—and now they’re on a 13-date tour that will stop in Newport News on Tuesday.
“We wanted to do this right,” McDuffie said. “We didn’t want to just have him write a piece and we play it once and then put it on the shelf. We wanted it to have legs and to have a life.”
The rock band on the tour includes Mills’ friend John Neff (formerly of the Drive-By Truckers) and a host of other Georgia-based musicians. The string orchestra is Fifth House Ensemble, which McDuffie describes as “just an eclectic, progressive, amazing group of musicians who are so fun to travel with and just very high-level, forward-thinking colleagues who are excited to do this.”
A few classical music critics have not embraced the piece, but McDuffie makes no apologies. “It’s really not a classical piece,” he said. “It’s a rock ‘n’ roll piece with classical elements. Mike will be the first to tell you that he was not trying to invent the wheel here.”
In fact, one of their goals on the tour is to break down the barriers traditionally associated with classical music. “I think one of the stupidest rules in classical music is the fact that you can’t clap between movements,” McDuffie said. “I don’t know who came up with that idea, but it’s just a really stupid, stupid requirement. It’s intimidating for people. … You want to feel comfortable and free to express your pleasure.”
So how are audiences reacting?
“How do I put this?” McDuffie asked. “They go crazy. I think that’s the best way of describing how the audiences deal with it. … It’s great. I’ve never had people clap in the middle of a lick before.”
McDuffie loves the composition too. “I knew it was going to be beautiful just because of his track record,” he said. “That’s his thing. Melody is his thing. And rhythm that rocks out. He’s a rocker. I fell in love with it.”
Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie will perform Mills’ “Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Christopher Newport University’s Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News. The program will also include John Adams’ “Road Movies” and Philip Glass’ “Symphony No. 3.” All tickets are $15. For more information, visit: fergusoncenter.org.