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Review: A Gala Rock Concert with Robert McDuffie and R.E.M.'s Mike Mills | Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra | Bass Performance Hall

Rock and Bow

At the Fort Worth Symphony Gala, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills and violinist Robert McDuffie performed Mills' Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra.

published Sunday, February 10, 2019



Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony, under direction of Miguel Harth-Bedoya, pleased all in an evening of a baroque classic and a rock concerto from Mike Mills, bassist from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member R.E.M.

The nearly full house for the gala event were dressed to the nines while others dressed to the 0.25s. The concert belonged to violinist Robert McDuffie, a highly accomplished player and childhood friend of Mills, both from Macon, Georgia.

Robert McDuffie

The first half of the program was The Four Seasons Opus 8 (ca. 1725) by Antonio Vivaldi. Colored nature symbols were projected on the backstage walls to accompany each movement. The ebullient opening to “Spring,” call it the first of more hit songs to come, launched the proceedings with grace and sheer pleasure. McDuffie has the most unpretentious stage presence of any renowned classical musician. He would constantly sway and take any posture the music demanded. His extroverted facial expressions complemented each new phrase. From any lesser player these would seem to make up for any lack of skill but from him a trust is insisted and assured. The audience chuckled with his knowing smiles at tutti entrances and cadences. The pastoral scene set, the second largo movement called to mind a sleeping shepherd complete with dog barks from a solo viola. The glossy and transparent pianissimi from the orchestra was mesmerizing and respectful to the soaring soloist. McDuffie, shifting his weight in a half crouch, and orchestra brought back a reflection of “Spring”’s opening ritornello.

A gregarious “Summer” saw the flamboyant soloist sawing away hoe-down style, but dramatic effect was the goal. He expertly managed each precise detail. McDuffie’s semi-dancing felt through every moment without flaw. The plummeting unison minor scales appropriately seared the air like mid-august. His quiet held notes exuded a welcome cool tone in the next Adagio with effortless projection. The principal cellist took the soloist’s cue in the Presto’s duet matching his percussive attacks. After which a quick retuning from the harpsichord was needed.

Another lighting change signaled the opening of “Autumn” whose Allegro retained all the magnetic energy and flashy acrobatics so far. McDuffie’s momentarily buzzy bow bounces complemented his welcoming approach to such a well-known classic. No less dramatic were the negotiations of balance in the quietest sections. Vivaldi, Bedoya and McDuffie were committed to giving all a gift of maximum enjoyment. After adagio harpsichord arpeggios spiked the air with a chill breeze several Baroque performance practices became apparent. Mainly without vibrato, the juxtaposition of opposites be they fast/slow, loud/soft and major/minor provided excitement inside all the dancing and story-telling.

“Winter” reminded how often we hear its vigorous circle of fifths progression in modern media to sell us diamonds and Lexuses. All the more refreshing to hear its bitter breezes live inside a cozy concert hall away from the real thing outside. Program notes expecting us to hear a warm fire in the Largo were proved through pizzicatos regulating a wooden music box. Cool textures and vibrant sweeps from McDuffie closed out the Seasons like running on ice yet confidently and exquisitely precise.

After intermission, three electric guitars, Mills’ Rickenbacker electric bass, a Steinway and a drummer’s plexiglass enclosure appeared downstage for Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra. The Rock Band/Orchestra experiment has been tried many times to varying degrees of success. YouTube darling Linsey Stirling plays pop music on a classical violin and also kind of dances while playing. Luckily this hybrid concerto instead drew from the progressive fusions of the Beatles. Mills introduced the piece by encouraging new expectations of audience behavior. Explaining how at a rock show anyone can cheer whenever they feel like it, the Bass Hall crowd whooped with anticipation.

Opening the first movement “Pour It Like You Mean It” with Mills’ solo bass riff the FWSO and their plugged-in partners then crashed in like a firm handshake. McDuffie, now swaying in denim, emanated this bluesy new vibe with as much tact and wow-factor as the Seasons suite. Sgt. Pepper-esque transitions in “On the Okeefenokee” knit together different tempos and textures with atonal group ascensions like “A Day in the Life.”

Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie performing in Aspen

Comparisons, good and bad, to the first half of the program took a while to cease distraction. The standard pop song formula of this concerto (of find a riff/groove, break it down a few times and give someone a solo spot) was in contrast to the Baroque tradition of unpredictability. While the electric guitar timbres melted nicely into the FWSO’s luxurious fabric, large string sections don’t rock…roll though they might. However, orchestrations by David Mallamud and these compositions by Mike Mills reflected some of the best instincts of genius composers like Antonio Vivaldi; the full bearhug of love in sound while meted out with judicious pacing. Both composers knew how much to repeat and exactly when to change patterns.

“Stardancers’ Waltz” gave time for the concerto to take shape when the tasteful front men blended as a modern ensemble. Mills’ pink guitar having set the bed stood back for the chamber musicians’ 15 seconds of baroque counterpoint ala “In My Life.” Then the unprecedented did happen when a portion of the audience, moved by a truly sweet phrase on stage, actually cheered out loud during the actual music right there inside the concert hall. This is a type of engagement whose time has come. Pearls unclutched.

Mills’ “Nightswimming” from R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People made up the fifth movement with the composer at the piano and McDuffie’s violin standing in for Michael Stipe’s vocals. Things rounded out traditionally in the sixth and final movement as melodies from previous ones swirled to an accelerando climax.

Setting aside a demoted Bedoya and other more or less stodgy classical music traditions, like an apparent central driving inspiration, it was still more than super fun. Bravo to Robert McDuffie’s eye-popping and ear-catching talents, Mike Mills’ similarly modest yet forward-looking compositions, and to the FWSO’s programming of accessibility and class. A rare combination. Thanks For Reading

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Rock and Bow
At the Fort Worth Symphony Gala, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills and violinist Robert McDuffie performed Mills' Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra.
by Rob Laney

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