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Mandolin Orchestra Celebrates 90 Years Of Harmony


Mandolin fever swept the United States in the early 20th century, and alas, they didn't have a cure in those days. The lute-like instrument was the rage on college campuses. And mandolin orchestras - hundreds spread across the country played to wildly enthusiastic crowds.

Today, there are only about 30. One of the oldest ensembles still playing, the New York Mandolin Orchestra, will celebrate its 90th anniversary tomorrow at a concert in Manhattan. Jon Kalish talks to some of the musicians who will perform and traces the history of this stringed instrument in this country.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: The New York Mandolin Orchestra rehearses most Tuesdays at an apartment complex for seniors in Manhattan.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, let's do that again. Remember, we're stretching three.

KALISH: The group was founded in 1924 by a Russian immigrant named Samuel Firstman and was initially known as the New York Freiheit Mandolin Orchestra because of its affiliation with a Jewish communist newspaper called the Freiheit. Bill Knapp played with the group for more than 30 years.

BILL KNAPP: All these people would come from Europe, and it was part of their culture. I mean, they believed in a larger culture. It was very important to them that they play this music, that they learn it, they pass it on.


KALISH: Two of those people were Jack and Florence Melman. When I spoke to them in 1992, they said they moved to New York from the Soviet Union.

FLORENCE MELMAN: I was with the orchestra 45 years. He played in a different group.

JACK MELMAN: The American Mandolin Orchestra for about 22 years. Believe it or not, we played in Madison Square Garden once.

KALISH: Both of the Melmans have passed away since then, and that was a problem many orchestras faced by the 1970s. When Barry Mitterhoff joined the New York group, he got his first mandolin as a teenager from his aunt Sylvia who had played in a mandolin orchestra in Newark, New Jersey.

BARRY MITTERHOFF: By the time I got involved, there were very few, quote, unquote "younger players," which included anybody under 50. Most of the members were senior citizens, and some of them were couples. They all worked in factories and sweatshops.

KALISH: Unions and labor groups organized their own mandolin orchestras. As membership began to expand, the instruments themselves began to evolve.


KALISH: The first mandolas and mandocellos started being produced in this country in the late 1800s, extending the range of the ensembles - think viols and cellos in a string quartet.


PAUL RUPPA: When people hear the mandolin orchestra, they're just completely surprised by the richness of the sound.

KALISH: Paul Ruppa is a member of the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra, which has been around for 114 years and is considered the oldest mandolin orchestra in the country.

RUPPA: Composers wrote wonderful counter-melodies for the mandocello and the mandola, and the arrangements are just very ornate and infectious. And melody was key, so people could really understand the music easily.


KALISH: As musical tastes changed between the world wars, interest in the orchestras began to wane. There was a revival in the late 1970s and '80s, sparked in part, by bluegrass mandolinists.

Lucky Checkley has been a member of the New York Mandolin Orchestra 25 years. At a rehearsal, he says the group's repertoire has evolved from largely classical and European folk music to one that includes jazz and pop.

LUCKY CHECKLEY: We have done that consciously to try to get a newer audience who are not so involved in just listening to Haydn and Handel. It has been working, not only for players, but it's been working a bit getting younger people to come listen to us.


KALISH: One of the newer members is Leah Wells, who also plays bluegrass banjo.

LEAH WELLS: Some of the bluegrassers I know dip into classical mandolin playing, and I've gone and seen them. I always enjoyed it, but it just hadn't occurred to me that it was something I could do.

KALISH: Wells joined the New York Mandolin Orchestra just two months ago. Irene Roberts, on the other hand, joined back in the 1980s when Barry Mitterhoff was the orchestra's concertmaster. When Roberts was a kid, her mother was a member.

IRENE ROBERTS: When I first started, Barry said to me, when you join the orchestra, it's for life. You don't play one year - it's for life. And he's right.

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm John Kalish in New York.


SIMON: B.J. Leiderman writes our theme music. Do you think he can score it for the mandolin? Stay tuned, let's find out. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Kalish
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