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R.E.M.'s Mills and Violinist McDuffie Bring New Music to 3 Georgia Cities

  • Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie

    Alex Irvin

A Macon-bred superstar duo is hitting the road this month. Which half you consider the bigger star likely depends on the musical circles you frequent. Robert McDuffie is an internationally acclaimed violinist who directs a chamber music festival in Rome (Italy, not Georgia…) and founded a string conservatory at Mercer University that bears his name. His childhood buddy and onetime choirmate Mike Mills was in an indie rock band called R.E.M. — you may have heard of them.

“We were really close for about four years before I left for Julliard,” explains McDuffie, known in his personal life as Bobby “by everyone but my mother.” The two stayed in touch, catching each other’s shows whenever their globetrotting paths intersected. They remained close enough that Mills became a primary investor in the legal partnership that owns the $3.5 million 1735-vintage violin McDuffie plays on stage.

In 2013 McDuffie, who has the clout to commission pieces from heavyweights like Philip Glass, approached Mills with the idea of composing a classical work. “I was really nervous when I first went to Mike," he recalls, “but he saw it as a challenge outside his wheelbase. By the end of our first meeting he said ‘I already have a tune in my head.’ As he put it, ‘Well, I could continue to play charity golf tournaments or I could challenge myself.’”

The fruit of that collaboration, Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra, premiered in Toronto in June. Coinciding with the composition’s October 14 release (on Glass’ Orange Mountain Music label), Mills and McDuffie are taking the lively work on a brief tour that includes Georgia stops in Athens (Oct. 24), Macon (Oct. 27) and Atlanta (Oct. 28).

Concerto was recorded in Atlanta over a whirlwind Labor Day weekend with the help of a 24-piece ensemble of students from the McDuffie Center for Strings (Chicago’s 15-piece Fifth House Ensemble will provide strings on tour). Mills took the lead in recruiting the “Rock Band” component, drawing on Athens scene veterans from R.E.M.’s old home turf.

On stage, Mills shifts between bass, guitar and keyboards across the half-hour concerto, which sports plenty of rock dynamics and even a familiar motif. “Mike brought back ‘Nightswimming’ for one of the movements,” beams McDuffie, referring to R.E.M.’s beautiful piano-based and, well, classic piece. When his band was still active, Mills once surprised a group of McDuffie’s students at an everyday class, jumping on stage to help craft an impromptu string quartet version of “Nightswimming.”

Mills and McDuffie don’t expect a typical classical audience for these shows. “We’re getting clear feedback the interest is R.E.M.-generated. We already saw this in Toronto, with a younger crowd,” although the Georgia dates don’t follow Toronto’s lead of a very rock-like 10 p.m. curtain time.

Macon’s inclusion on the Concerto tour was a no-brainer; Mills and McDuffie are justifiably proud of their hometown, as is Bobby of the international draw his Center for Strings has become. “Mike and I had to leave Macon to realize our potential — now people are coming to Macon to make their mark.”

The program also includes works by renowned modern classical composers John Adams and Philip Glass (though not the piece commissioned by McDuffie), mirroring the record’s tracklist. “I’m squeezing in the broccoli,” McDuffie jokes before adding, “I’m in love with the Adams piece — it’s intense, rhythmic, challenging. The second is recognizable as Philip Glass, but this one is particularly seductive. And then come the fireworks.”

Glen Sarvady

Glen Sarvady is Georgia’s official Music Explorer. He has lived in Atlanta for more than 20 years, and has written about music both locally and nationally for at least as long. More recently, he has written regularly for the music/arts publication Stomp & Stammer as well as GeorgiaMusic.org.