DCA brings mandolin fever to Cambridge

MD-DCA brings mandolin fever_4x group

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
The Dorchester Center for the Arts hosted the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra on June 5, to the delight of a capacity crowd.

CAMBRIDGE — Mandolin orchestra fever came to the United States from Italy in the 1920s. It was actually a worldwide pandemic — all the rage! However, with a depression in 1929, followed by a world war, the fever began to cool.

But mandolin orchestras are heating up again, and the spirit was very much alive in Cambridge on Sunday afternoon when the Dorchester Center for the Arts hosted the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra. Some two dozen musicians, dressed in the formal black garb of a symphony orchestra, unpacked their mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos, and a big old mandobass; and, led by Music Director Kristen Turner, proceeded to infect locals with the fever. The symptoms are head-bobbing rhythmically and toe-tapping, an imperceptible movement to the music, some rapt attention and lots of smiles.

The musical program included a wide variety of selections. “Whistling Rufus,” a lively tune, made you wish the walk with whistling Rufus would last longer. “Sogno d’un Odalisque,” the dream-music of a woman in a harem, evokes the soft music of water in fountains. Composed for guitars but performed by a mandolin orchestra, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” is so beautiful, it could send you home to find it on YouTube.

A Calypso medley and a traditional Samba which had everyone clapping in time, proved the versatility of the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra. But one selection, Vivaldi’s “Concerto in G for Two Mandolins,” produced a special surprise. Five children charmed the audience as they played the solo of the concerto. They are part of the “Pioneers,” the advanced students of the orchestra’s program called Mando for Kids, founded in 2010 by Laura Norris, the concertmistress.

The program is like farm teams for baseball. These students will be the mandolin orchestra of the future. Eighty children are enrolled, and they start at age 6 with an instrument that is small in size. Fourteen-year-old Abbie Cannon says, “I started out with piano but I tried the mandolin and I fell in love with it. But my parents are the real troopers. They have to drive me to and from Bethesda to Baltimore.” And to concerts too, a variation of the soccer or lacrosse traveling team.

Sophia Adams says she loves the speed and the notes. “My friends don’t find it odd…they think it’s cool.” Is she good at it? Sophia replies, “I like to think so.”

The 30 adults in the orchestra also play for the love of it. They may sound like professionals, but they have careers or are retired. Orchestra member Roger Price explained both the differences and similarities of a string orchestra and a mandolin orchestra. The mandolin is equivalent to the violin, the mandola to a viola, the mandocello, to a cello and a mandobass to the bass in the orchestra.

The fingering of the left hand is identical in the mando and conventional instruments, but the mandolins rely on plectrums (or picks) to produce the sound on their doubled-up strings. They don’t use bows to make their punchy or mellow sounds. One player, Gary Van Ansdale, needed a new mandolin and the price for an entry level one is more than a thousand dollars. The price for a book on how to make your own was only $20, so today Gary is playing a very pretty mandolin, with f-holes and a good sound — and it’s a Van Ansdale original.

The mandolin is popular among many musicians and genre. You can hear it in some of the songs of Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart, the Eagles, the Grateful Dead, as well as Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs. Or you can wait until the return visit next year, when the wonderful Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra is back at the Dorchester Center for the Arts.

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