With Passion, The Mandolin Orchestra Endures | WGLT

With Passion, The Mandolin Orchestra Endures

Apr 27, 2018

Just over 100 years ago, mandolin mania swept across the United States, inspiring people of all ages to pick up the instrument and even form their own amateur groups.

Although musical tastes have changed and the guitar now commands center stage, a handful of mandolin groups are still making music with the distinctive instrument, including central Illinois' own Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra. The group is holding its 10th annual Spring Soiree on Sunday afternoon at the Normal Theater. 

The ensemble invited mandolin master Brian Oberlin to join them, both to perform with the group and to share some pointers about playing the sprightly-sounding instrument. The self-taught Oberlin is an internationally acclaimed mandolin player who performs almost exclusively as a soloist. He's a triple threat—adept at playing bluegrass, swing and classical music. And of the three, Oberlin described classical as uniquely demanding of mandolin players.

"Primarily, it's the different right-hand techniques that you never hear in bluegrass or swing. Classical music moves around. It's not a normal piece of music that's just a 1-4-5 chord progression. It has all these different movements and places to explore," Oberlin said.

Mandolin Craze Begins

When Oberlin takes the stage with the Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra in Sunday's concert, he'll be a part of a tradition that dates back to 1890. That's when the U.S. mandolin craze started.

Musician Martha Tyner plays with the Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra, and she noted that the tradition of mandolin orchestra began in the Old World, but quickly caught on in the state when a group from Spain known as The Spanish Students played a New York concert to great acclaim. Other mandolin groups sprung up in the states, modeling themselves on The Spanish Students.

"In fact, one group called themselves The Spanish Students, although they weren't from Spain, had nothing to do with them and were Italian. But they played the same repertoire and started touring the country. It was that same turn-of-the-20th century era when glee clubs started and a lot of universities had guitar and mandolin clubs. So it started as an amateur community music-making kind of thing."

Jim Stanlaw plays the mandocello in the Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra. The instrument is tuned differently from the traditional mandolin and it's a bit bigger, explained Stanlaw. The variations of the mandolin came about as interest in mandolin groups grew in the early 20th century. Gibson, makers of acoustic instruments, responded to that interest by creating instruments in varying sizes, said Stanlaw.

"They basically inundated the whole country with these teacher agents who would have a truck load of mandolins of different sizes. They would go to every church, every group, every fraternity and college campus and sell these instruments and teach people how to play them.  That's where the mandocello came from."

Eventually, mandolin mania abated in the U.S., but about 30 to 35 groups carried on. The Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra can't trace its roots back that far, having been founded as part of an outgrowth of a Old Time Music jam band more than a decade ago. But members of the group have embraced the spirit of the original mandolin ensembles. These groups endure, said guest performer Brian Oberlin, because the performers cannot resist the lure of the versatile  instrument.

"You can play bluegrass, classical, swing, Irish, polkas," he said. "You can play chords, you can play leads, you can play tremolo—anything! And it fits in the overhead compartment in a plane!"

The Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra's Spring Soiree is Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Normal Theater. Admission is free.

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