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Mike Mills delivering ‘something completely different’ musically

R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills (left) and violinist Robert McDuffy.| CAMI PHOTO

When Mike Mills returns to Chicago on Nov. 7, don’t expect to find him at the United Center. The famed R.E.M. bassist and songwriter will be appearing in a very different venue and context.

R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills
With: violinist Robert McDuffie and Fifth House Ensemble
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7
Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph
Tickets: $35-$125
Info: harristheaterchicago.org

Heading a four-member rock band and joined by violin soloist Robert McDuffie and the Chicago-based Fifth Ensemble, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer will present the Chicago premiere of his Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra.

The concert at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, which also includes John Adams’ “Road Movies” and Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3, is the last stop on a national tour that began Oct. 20 in Miami and has included stops in Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Detroit.
The half-hour concerto is Mills’ first foray into classical music, but he is quick to say that it is not, strictly speaking, a classical composition. “It’s kind of hard to describe,” he said. “It’s a hybrid of rock’n’roll and classical, but it’s not just a classical piece.

“The live show itself is even more rock’n’roll than classical, because all the rules about classical music — you have to be quiet and you have to be silent between movements – we throw all that stuff out. It’s more like a rock show or a jazz show, where people can yell and applaud any time they want.”

Although the piece is called a concerto and it does offer a virtuosic showcase for the solo violin, it is more a suite of six instrumental songs, each with its own evocative title, such as “On the Okeefenokee” and “Stardancers’ Waltz.” All the songs were freshly written for this project, except for the arrangement of “Night Swimming,” which R.E.M. originally released as a single in 1993.

Fifth House Ensemble | CAMI PHOTO

Fifth House Ensemble | CAMI PHOTO

While the work leans toward classical music, the varied songs also possess a breezy feel and rhythmic drive that fans of R.E.M. should find familiar.

“I’ve always really enjoyed melody,” Mills said, “It’s been one of my favorite aspects of music since I was kid. So, when you’re dealing with a wordless set of songs or pieces, it really becomes all about the melody and Bobby’s virtuosity.”

McDuffie and Mills grew up together in Macon, Ga., and were friends in high school. But each went his own way in the music world, with McDuffie attending the Juilliard School in New York and Mills forming R.E.M. in 1980 with a group of fellow students at the University of Georgia.

After commissioning, premiering and touring Glass’ immediately popular Violin Concerto No. 2, “The American Four Seasons,” in 2009, McDuffie began looking for another project in which he could engage with a living composer and he thought of Mills.

In 2014, McDuffie called and asked the R.E.M. star if he’d be interested in creating a concerto. “I definitely had to think about it,” Mills said. “He caught me at a time when I was wondering what my next move was going to be, so that worked out well. But I knew it would be a challenge, and I had to decide if I wanted to run up against that wall a few times.”

To help him with the demands of writing for classical violin and arranging for a string orchestra, he sought the assistance of composer David Mallamud. The concerto premiered in Toronto in June, and Mills proclaims himself pleased with the results.
“I love it,” he said. “I think the fun part is the blending of the two genres. I think everybody that gets to play it really enjoys the participation of the other musicians.”

Mills said it is impossible to know who has been in the audience for the tour of his new concerto, but he suspects it’s a mix of R.E.M. fans and classical devotees looking for something different. “I’m hoping we got a lot curious people from both sides of the coin,” he said.

Will there be any more cross-genre works by the rock bassist? “I’m really focused on enjoying the tour and trying to play well every night and just be in the moment,” he said. “It was a pretty daunting thing to do this, so I’m in no rush to jump back in, but we’ll see what happens.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.