Review: Concerto for Violin, Rock Band & String Orchestra: Composed by R.E.M.’s Mike Mills for Robert McDuffie Featuring Fifth House Ensemble at Strathmore

When I saw Mike Mills of R.E.M. was coming to town, I knew I had to see him because I grew up on his music. R.E.M.’s music was a huge part of my life. Mills and Robert McDuffie didn’t disappoint by playing one R.E.M. song, “Nightswimming.” The intimate concert featured beautiful music by several groups of musicians with Mills, McDuffie, and Fifth House Ensemble.

Robert McDuffie , Photo courtesy of his website.
Robert McDuffie. Photo courtesy of his website.

Critically acclaimed and Grammy Award-winning Mills was one of the creative geniuses behind R.E.M. He was principal songwriter of many of R.E.M’s internationally hits that led to 80 million records sold. He provided bass, piano, keyboards, and vocal harmonies for many of R.E.M.’s songs. In addition to R.E.M. he has many side musical projects and solo work.

Grammy-nominated violinist McDuffie has had an incredible career and achievements. He has soloed with major orchestras all over the world including: New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the Chicago, San Francisco, National, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, Montreal, and Toronto Symphonies. He founded the Rome Chamber Music Festival and was awarded the prestigious Premio Simpatia by the Mayor of Rome for his contributions.

So what is Mills and McDuffie’s affiliation? They were friends in high school.  McDuffie’s mom was the music director at their church. Mills and McDuffie were in the church choir together too! McDuffie decided to work with living composers and collaborate with them to write music, so he reached out to Mills and voila! Mills worked with David Mallamud to help arrange the strings section.

R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills (left) and violinist Robert McDuffy. Photo by CAMI PHOTO.
R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills (left) and violinist Robert McDuffy. Photo by CAMI PHOTO. Courtesy of Chicago Sun Times.

The critically acclaimed Fifth House Ensemble is out of Chicago. They are known for their innovation while supporting different artistic groups from theater, visual artists, animators, composers, astronomers, and folk musician, while being civic minded by supporting their city.

The first part of the show featured McDuffie on violin and Julliard trained pianist Elizabeth Pridgen accompanying on piano. They played minimalist music composed by Composer John Adams. Pridgen wore a beautiful black ball gown with spaghetti straps while McDuffie wore a black long sleeve shirt and jeans. They played three songs “Relaxed Groove,” “Meditative,” and “40% Swing.” McDuffie played with such passion that his whole body and facial features blended into the music.  Pridgen carefully followed his lead as her fingers furiously played the keys. The song “40% Swing” swung up and down with ferocity. Pridgen’s fingers and McDuffie’s fingers were going so fast that it was almost a blur. Their precision and mastery for their instruments and the music flowed through them.

Fifth House Ensemble. Photo courtesy of their website.
Fifth House Ensemble. Photo courtesy of their website.

The next set featured the Fifth House Ensemble who all looked straight out of college. They all wore black except for the lead violinist who wore a bright white jacket. They played music composed by Philip Glass: Movement I, II, III, and IV. Charlene Kluegel, the principal violinist, introduced the ensemble and their performance while proclaiming, “Go Cubs!.” She shared that the third movement usually brought her to tears from its beauty.  The ensemble played seamlessly and effortlessly. This music gave me chills.

Set three featured the ensemble, McDuffie and Mills and the rock band featuring John Neff (guitar), Williams Tonks (guitar), and Patrick Ferguson (drums/ percussion). The set was cool. It was almost like a layering of the previous sets. McDuffie and Mills wore matching black long sleeved shirts and jeans. I wasn’t sure if that was on purpose, but it symbolically sent a message they are in collaboration.

The ensemble was behind the rock band. The drummer was encased in a glass or plastic holding pen. McDuffie took center stage and basically stole the whole show. McDuffie’s violin playing was the lead through all five songs. Mills open the set by encouraging the audience to be raucous just like they are at a rock concert, which led to whooping and hollering.

Neff and Tonks did a great job accompanying McDuffie’s swirling violin playing. Mills played the piano beautifully during “Nightswimming.” It brought me back to my teen years! Ferguson greatly added to the songs with his enthusiastic drumming. The ensemble completed the song by complementing McDuffie’s violin playing. While Mills had never composed for strings before, he successfully pulled it off and it brought the crowd to a standing ovation.

The set’s song list:
“Pour It Like You Mean It”
“On the Okeefenokee”
“Sonny Side Up”
“Stardancers’ Waltz”
“You Can Go Home Again”

After the concert McDuffie and Mills met fans and signed CDs of their musical collaboration. Both men were cordial, sincere, and enthusiastic with everyone they met.

John Adams Road Movies
Philip Glass Symphony No. 3
Mike Mills Concerto for Rock Band, Violin and String Orchestra (arr. by David Mallamud)

Mike Mills, bass guitar and keyboard.
John Neff, guitar.
William Tonks, guitar.
Patrick Ferguson, drums/percussion.
Elizabeth Pridgen, piano.
Christopher Taylor, piano.
Fifth House Ensemble.

Running Time: One hour and 40-minutes, with one intermission.

Concerto for Violin, Rock Band & String Orchestra: Composed by R.E.M.’s Mike Mills for Robert McDuffie Featuring Fifth House Ensemble  was performed for one night only on November 3, 2016 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For tickets to the Music Center’s upcoming events, go to their website. For Concerto for Violin, Rock Band & String Orchestra: Composed by R.E.M.’s Mike Mills for Robert McDuffie Featuring Fifth House Ensemble upcoming tour dates visit their website.

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Marlene Hall
Marlene Hall grew up an army brat and has lived all over the world and in Washington, DC where she was constantly exposed to theater and music. Marlene graduated from the University of Virginia where she wrote for the Cavalier Daily interviewing musicians. Commissioned as an Air Force officer, she served 8 years. She now works as a realtor with eXp Realty. In addition, Marlene dabbles in improvisational comedy and has taken classes at the famed iO Theater in Chicago and the DC Improv. She is very active in the DC charity and social scene and contributes her time to veterans’ organizations Team Rubicon and Team Red, White, and Blue. She also was a supernumerary in the Washington National Opera’s Carmen with opera singer Denyce Graves. She loves the music and theater scene in DC and goes to as many concerts and shows as possible.


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