Robert McDuffie / Mike Mills

Mike Mills: Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra

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The chief attraction of this release on Philip Glass' Orange Mountain Music label is the presence of Mike Mills, bassist for the durable Georgia alternative rock band R.E.M. Mills wrote the Concerto for violin, rock band and string orchestra at the behest of violinist Robert McDuffie, Mills' childhood friend from the city of Macon. The MCS Ensemble that provides the orchestral component is from the violinist's McDuffie Center for Strings in Macon, and they do that small Georgia city proud; it has up to now been known mostly for soul music and Southern rock. Mills has said: "With this piece, a lot of people are referring to it as a classical piece. I'm not. There are certainly classical elements to it, but I don't refer to it as a classical piece." If you keep this in mind, you'll do fine. It's a set of six instrumental songs (sample any one of the six for an idea) with, presumably, tunes and rhythms by Mills, "orchestration and additional music" by David Mallamud, and violin by McDuffie, trading off with electric guitarist William Tonks and the rest of a rock band. Mills does not try to build larger classical structures, but he does take on the problem of balancing the rock band with the violin and strings, and his solutions are simple but workable in a way that few earlier attempts have been. The classical experiments of Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the 1970s are probably the nearest comparison here, although Mills works on a smaller scale; the music does not, for the most part, sound much like R.E.M. Mills lets the fundamentally divergent rock band and string orchestra revolve around two fulcrums: McDuffie's violin and the temporary suspension of the rock rhythms. The violin can either duet with the electric guitar or lead the string orchestra. This builds the elusive balance between the two poles, and in general no component of the ensemble is overwhelmed. Part of the credit may be due to OMM's crack engineering staff, but the work has also been performed live to some success, and this is due to the musical thinking involved. The MCS Ensemble delivers clean performances of John Adams' Road Movies and of the Philip Glass Symphony No. 3; both are enjoyable, but a work by Michael Daugherty, who approaches similar problems from the classical direction, might have been more instructive. At any rate, R.E.M. fans and those interested in classical-rock fusions will want this release.

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