Bloomington-Normal Becomes Mandolin Central (For A Week, Anyway) | WGLT

Bloomington-Normal Becomes Mandolin Central (For A Week, Anyway)

Sep 30, 2019

A local music ensemble is rolling out the red carpet to welcome mandolin players from around the country as they celebrate their instrument and endeavor to bring back its glory days. 

The Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra hosts the 33rd Classical Mandolin Society of America convention Oct. 9–13 at the Marriott in Uptown Normal. The convention aims to help musicians level up on their playing, and also offers free performances for the public. Through the efforts of the CMSA, mandolin performers hope to bring their instrument back to the fore.

Martha Tyner is a member of the Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra. She said the performers hope their efforts will bring the once greatly popular instrument back to the fore, and that while the mandolin has long reigned in bluegrass music, if you go back in history a bit, you’ll find the mandolin was a popular instrument of choice in classical ensembles.

Adept at several instruments, including the fiddle and the mandolin, during this rehearsal of the Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra, Tyner plays the guitar.
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT

“A lot of music around the turn of the 20th century was written for mandolin ensembles,” Tyner explained. “And then it kind of died out around the 1920s when jazz and banjos and louder instruments came along and drowned out mandolins.” 

The enduring strain of mandolin performing was more of an amateur phenomenon, said Tyner. 

“There were always little pockets, people who knew about this earlier music who kept it up. In the 1960s and 70s, musicians who were mandolin players, who are always looking for something different to do, rediscovered this repertoire and this music. It’s very fun to play in an ensemble. Since then, there’s been a revival going on.” 

In 1986, the Classical Mandolin Society of America was founded in order to promote and nurture the vintage style of playing. Each year, the mandolin players gather at a convention to exchange ideas, learn new techniques, meet leading mandolin musicians, and perform.  

“It’s a terrific honor to host,” Tyner said. “We are one of the smaller ensembles. And I’m pretty sure we’re the smallest metropolitan area to host it.”  

Mandolin ensembles volunteer to host the convention, working with the national organization to arrange locations, workshops, jams and more. 

“We felt that Uptown Normal had a lot to offer, in terms of what you need when you have 110 people in one place. We have good place for people to get to to eat and entertainment.” 

The group carefully considered the responsibility of being the host for the convention, then jumped in. 

“We were a little hesitant at first, knowing that it was a big undertaking. It’s an opportunity for us to raise our national profile as a little ‘gee kids, let’s make a band’ kind of ensemble. Also, it’s a chance to show off this part of the country.” 

The convention includes workshops in mandolin, guitar and conducting, jam sessions, open mic opportunities, and a composer-in-residence. 

“The whole purpose of the organization is to promote classical mandolin playing, ensemble playing, and so this encourages new compositions. The composer-in-residence premiers a piece at the convention, which the en mass orchestra plays.” 

The en mass orchestra is giving a public concert on Saturday, Oct. 12, at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall.  

Through the efforts of local ensembles and the national organization, the mandolin appears to be making a comeback, said Tyner, and possible in the midst of another golden age. 

“That’s the hope of CMSA – to have this grow. They’re sponsoring a program called Mando For Kids, and there’s a whole curriculum that’s been successful in a couple of cities that’s beginning to bring on youngsters.” 

“They’re promoting mandolin as a classical instrument, which it started out as. It is exciting to host the convention here because we can promote this. You say ‘classical mandolin’ and people don’t have a clue. And there’s no reason why they would. Until after Oct. 13, and then they will know,” Tyner added with a smile.


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