Event – Mike Mills Rock Concerto


The Boy is into music.  Like, WAY into music.  He knows all kinds of bands, and can tell you about concerts he attended, and albums he owned, and has special memories connected to each.  One of the bands that he has a great affection for is R.E.M., and he will occasionally play one of their albums when we’re driving places.  So when he heard that R.E.M.’s bassist Mike Mills had created a rock concerto and that it would be performed locally at the Strathmore, he was super excited.  I was as immediately enthusiastic as he, but willing to try new and different things (especially since we’ve been wanting to try and go to some classical-type concerts after watching Mozart in the Jungle), so we bought tickets, and that is what we did last night.

Photo from RobertMcDuffie.com

I don’t know what I was expecting, but whatever ideas I may have had, they were not met, because I was instead blown away by the awesomeness.  It turns out the reason that Mike Mills wrote the concerto in the first place was because his childhood friend-turned-classical violinist Robert McDuffie was growing bored with the same classical selection time after time, and had been recruiting great composers to write interesting pieces for him.  I was also intrigued by the fact that all the performers were dressed in ways you don’t normally see on stage – lots of jeans (both skinny and regular) along with the occasional semi-sheer blouse.

The concert was broken down into three sections – the first being a piece by John Adams in three sections called “Road Movies”.  It was amazing.  I kept looking at both McDuffie and pianist Elizabeth Pridgen and trying to figure out how it’s possible to work so synchronously well together as they did with their pieces.  None of it was the type where you could just keep time and know where you’re supposed to play whichever notes – they just felt each other and worked wondrously in a way that felt natural and organic.  She was simultaneously gentle and driving with her piano playing, and it was a good contrast to the almost intensely intimate and flirtatious way that McDuffie played his violin.

The second section of the concert was Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 3 played by the Fifth House Ensemble.  I don’t know a lot about contemporary classical music, but I’ve heard of Philip Glass, and knew he did some interesting things, but I’ve never seen his music performed in person.  I was most struck by the third movement, which felt to me like it could be the soundtrack to some brave and ominous scene in a movie where a person takes on an incredible and dangerous task, only to be joined by friends who vow to help on whatever job needs to be done.  At least that’s the kind of thing that I was imagining as I sat, entranced.  But I suppose Glass is used to helping create a visual feel, as he’s worked on many film scores.

Photo from RobertMcDuffie.com
Photo from RobertMcDuffie.com

The final section was the Mike Mills Rock Concerto, and it was very cool.  On stage we had a four piece rock band, including a drummer in his sound-dampening booth, a string ensemble, and solo violinist taking on the role of vocal soloist.  We were all told by Mills before the beginning of the performance that this would not be like other classical concerts – we were encouraged to treat it like any other rock performance, to cheer, applaud and participate when we felt moved to – we didn’t need to sit on our hands until the end of the performance.  And nobody did – when there was a terrific solo section, we applauded afterwards, we cheered between the different movements, and there were occasional exhortations from the audience when they really enjoyed something.  And it was beautiful – my favorites being the second movement “On the Okeefenokee” which was just sweet and soothing as you could imagine, and the “Stardancers’ Waltz”, which had the feel of old-fashioned ballroom dance music with contemporary and shall I say celestial twists.  The boy loved the orchestral arrangement of “Nightswimming” – a song he has fond memories of as a teenager.

It was a terrific experience.  We will definitely make our way back to the Strathmore again, and potentially for more classical engagements, though they probably won’t be as different an innovative as the evening we experienced last night.  I know that the Boy is planning on buying the Mike Mills Rock Concerto, but you can find both the Adams and Glass pieces on youtube.  Basically, I’m so glad we went.  It’s the kind of introduction to contemporary classical music that makes me excited to live in a town where there are so many opportunities to be exposed to great artists.


Details: Mike Mills Rock Concerto, Touring through November 7.  Stops in Pittsburgh, PA; Carmel, IN; Detroit, MI; Chicago, IL.
Mike Mills Rock Concerto available on iTunes
Upcoming Events at Strathmore.

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