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R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills blurs the boundaries between rock and classical music

Violinist Robert McDuffie and former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills perform 'Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra.'
Violinist Robert McDuffie and former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills perform 'Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra.'

The marriage of rock and classical music is nothing new. Bands such as The Beatles, King Crimson, the Moody Blues and, more recently, Metallica and Radiohead have heavily incorporated symphonic strains into their songs. 

Paul McCartney has written several classical pieces in his post-Beatles career, the Pet Shop Boys composed music for a ballet, and Peter Gabriel released an orchestral covers album, among many other examples.

Even the disparate worlds of hip-hop (the Fort Lauderdale duo Black Violin), electronic dance music (BT, Tiesto, Paul Oakenfold) and Barry Manilow (his hit “Could It Be Magic” uses the chords of Chopin’s “Prelude in C Minor”) have dipped their toes in orchestral waters.

The most recent incarnation of rock-meets-classical kicks off its U.S. tour at downtown Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday night when Mike Mills, bassist for the pioneering alt-rock band R.E.M., presents “Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra,” his first original classical composition. The program will also showcase works by two titans of contemporary American music: John Adams’ “Road Movies” and Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3.

Mills’ concerto, which he wrote at the suggestion of his lifelong friend, Juilliard-trained and Grammy-nominated violinist Robert McDuffie, features McDuffie on violin, a three-member rock band led by Mills on bass and keyboard, and Chicago’s 15-string chamber orchestra Fifth House Ensemble. 


Longtime friends Mike Mills (left) and Robert McDuffie created a concert where their musical interests converge. 

“It was Bobby’s idea,” Mills said of McDuffie. “As he put it, he didn’t want to be limited to music by dead, white, European males [laughs], so he asked me a couple years ago if I would write a half hour of music combining rock ‘n’ roll and classical. And I thought about it for a little bit, and said, “That sounds like quite a challenge, and a pretty great idea.”

It’s also the first major contribution to the music world for Mills since the breakup of R.E.M. – also featuring guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Berry and iconic singer Michael Stipe – in 2011, after a three-decade-plus run that landed the group in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The concerto took Mills about 18 months from conception to completion. And presenting the show was perhaps the most uncomfortable he has ever felt as a musician.

“Terrifying,” Mills said with a laugh, describing the concert’s world premiere in June with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. “The first show, I was so nervous I was probably a little bit insane. But it went well.” 

Mills says nothing he experienced with R.E.M., even playing for audiences of hundreds of thousands, could have prepared him for performing this new project.

“I feel so much more out front than I ever did with the band,” he said. “And also, you’re going into uncharted territory here. You’re not sure how the audience is going to react, you’re not sure how many classical fans are out there versus rock ‘n’ roll fans, you’re not sure whether either of them are gonna understand what we’re trying to do. But they’ve been so very successful that I feel a lot better about it.”

Mills says that the opportunity to write this concerto was a bit of a jolt, career-wise.

“I was at a point in my life where I had to decide: Am I going to kind of goof off and play charity events the rest of my life, or am I going to pursue something as a new challenge?” he said. “And Bobby dropped this in my lap, and I said, ‘Well, I can’t think of anything more challenging than that.’”

Mills is quick to point out that he had plenty of help.

“I wrote everything musically, but there was a lot of collaboration with the arranger, David Mallamud,” he said. “He was just a great guy to work with, and he really helped me to make the music work in a world that I was not that familiar with. I mean, I’ve heard a lot of classical music, but I’ve never written for a string section, so he helped me apply my melodies to Bobby’s violin, and he helped me apply my ideas to the string section. So he was invaluable.”

The Toronto Star praised Mills’ piece as “a winning way to introduce the symphony to a new generation” – a sentiment that fits Mills’ goals. 

“That’s part of what we’re trying to do,” he said. “I’ve been a classical music fan for all my life because my father was a dramatic tenor, and sang it and played it at the house all the time. So I want to keep music alive, period. I want to keep live music alive. We got the best elements of rock ‘n’ roll and classical, and it has beauty, it has energy, it has melody. I think what we did was blur the boundaries as much as we possibly could between the two genres, and just try to show people that they don’t have to be as distinct as people think they do.”

Mills says not to expect his piece to sound like “classical R.E.M.”

“I don’t really hear a lot of R.E.M. in this,” he said. “All the instrumentalists are different. [R.E.M. guitarist] Peter [Buck] is not on it, and he was suc

h a huge part of the R.E.M. sound. Patrick Ferguson is an amazing drummer, but he doesn’t play – as he shouldn’t – like Bill Berry. So oddly enough, it doesn’t echo R.E.M. as much as you might think it would.”

Mills and Michael Stipe have been very insistent that there’s no possibility of an R.E.M. reunion, but considering how many bands have had multiple “farewell tours,” it’s fair for fans to wonder: Is there a chance?

“We were all pretty much at peace with the decision,” Mills said. “I hate to be so vague, but it was just time. We’d done everything we can do – what else can we do that we haven’t done already? So we’re still young enough to go pursue things and have fun, and we’re all still friends, and we wanted to keep it that way.

“You can’t be 100 percent sure – you never know the future,” he continued. “I will say at this point that we have no plans to reunite, and we’re happy being the one band that doesn’t reunite. But anything could happen.”