Classical mandolin virtuoso sheds new light on folk instrument
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Here are two facts you might not know about the mandolin: It's not merely for folk and bluegrass but also a classical instrument, and people tend to play it in very large ensembles.
Charley Rappaport, music director of the Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra, will be the first to admit that many don't know the full extent of what his chosen instrument can do.
"Sixty percent first hear it through progressive bluegrass like David Grisman, which is mixed with jazz. The other 40 percent heard it from childhood through ethnic attachments with music -- Croatians, Italians, or Eastern European Jews, for example," he says.
But there's so much more, which is why the Pittsburgh Mandolin Society (the nonprofit umbrella that includes the orchestra and other ensembles) is bringing classical mandolin virtuoso Carlo Aonzo to town. Mr. Aonzo first met Mr. Rappaport at the 2004 convention of the Classical Mandolin Society of America and appeared in Pittsburgh last year in a concert at Duquesne University sponsored by the Italian consulate.
"The mandolin has an important history from the classical side," explains Mr. Aonzo by phone from Italy. "In Europe and Japan, the mandolin is seen more as a classical instrument, and we have a huge repertoire from the Baroque and classical periods. Another mode of expression for the instrument is through the mandolin orchestra, which has very deep roots, and Pittsburgh's orchestra is a good version of this."
With: Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra.
When: 7:30 pm. Saturday.
Where: Synod Hall, 125 N. Craig Street, Oakland.
Tickets: $12-$15. 412-257-0670.
Also: Workshop at 10 a.m. Sunday at Allegheny Elks Lodge, 400 Cedar Ave., North Side. $25. 412-257-0670.
Founded in 2002 by Alan Epstein, the current Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra is not the first to have existed in the region -- the group's website displays a grainy photograph of another Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra from 1919. That wasn't unusual -- forming mandolin ensembles (which encompass size varieties analogous to stringed instruments: the mandola, mandocello and mandobass) was a big craze around the turn of the past century. Companies such as Gibson and Martin did a brisk business selling the instruments and promoting its use among the circles of high society.
The PMO has evolved quite a bit in the past few years, according to Mr. Rappaport. "It's become a demanding and professional unit in its approach. We've added percussion and woodwinds, growing to twice the original size. We have 40 regular members ranging in age from 15 to 90, and increased our repertoire to include classical, American folk and European melodies, and we're just beginning to explore the possibilities of the 'golden era' of the mandolin orchestra from the early 1900s. We also added a vocal soloist -- a talented young tenor named Gary Burdick."
The mandolin's versatility even has international appeal, Mr. Rappaport adds. "Koji Maruhashi, who's in the orchestra, works at CMU as a researcher and has 15 years experience in mandolin orchestras in Japan. He found us on the Internet, came to our rehearsals, and was a natural match."
Despite the logistics in keeping a large group together and rehearsing regularly, opportunities for the orchestra's performance have mushroomed. Because of the nature of the music, you won't find the musicians in loud smoky clubs, but the group has played in nursing homes in Baden and Lawrenceville, churches in Bellevue and Weirton, W.Va., a public park in Crafton, the library in Carnegie with a Ukrainian dance ensemble, and a holiday concert in the Wintergarden at PPG Place. The Mandolin Society partners up with Calliope to offer lessons through teacher Carol Palmer, while Jack Stein, vice president of the Mandolin Society, is co-owner of Squirrel Hill's Acoustic Music Works, which offers one of the largest stocks of mandolins anywhere.
Age is no barrier to learning the mandolin, and neither is marriage: There are a couple of parent-child and husband-wife teams within the PMO. Mr. Aonzo, as well, comes from a family tradition in the heartland of northern Italy -- Savona (near Genoa), where Christopher Columbus once lived. "I was taught by my father, who is a master of the instrument."
In Italy, he adds, one can receive a mandolin degree, and Mr. Aonzo won first prize at graduation from the conservatory of Padua.
"I'm a classical musician, but I also like to show people the different possibilities of an instrument that can play jazz, folk, blues or even South American choro. The mandolin has a major role in the classical [genre], so this is the focus of our work in releasing my new album, 'Fantasia Poesica,' which covers the Romantic period. We start from Beethoven and go to the biggest masters of mandolin composition, such as Carlo Munier [who advocated for the mandolin's 'art music' potential] and Raffaele Calace."
The "we" Mr. Aonzo refers to is his faithful keyboard accompanist Elena Buttiero, who appeared on a previous album playing spinet and focusing on the Baroque period.
"She's a professor on the piano faculty at a school in Savona. Now we are moving ahead chronologically until almost our own day," he explains. "Pittsburgh will be the world premiere of the album, and then we're going to have a one-month tour [to promote it]."
Mr. Aonzo's impressions of the city, first formed last year during his Duquesne stop, were highly complimentary.
"We had the idea that it's [still] an industrial city, but it was impressively alive in terms of culture and tourist offerings. The concert was very welcomed because of the mandolin community [in Pittsburgh], the Italian music lovers, and the music school itself. I remember that the whole Mandolin Orchestra came to the concert."
No wonder, then, that in addition to performing a set from his album with Ms. Buttiero, Mr. Aonzo will sit "in musical friendship" with the PMO.
"Because of Carlo's influence, we'll be doing Italian folk music and light classical pieces," says Mr. Rappaport. "We'll do some Neapolitan art songs [the equivalent of German lieder], which will be sung by Burdick. Those are the same songs that the greats like Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti used to perform."
The day after the concert, once again funded by the Italian consulate and Duquesne University's Center for International Relations, Mr. Aozno will hold court at the Allegheny Elks on the North Side for an expert workshop.
"I'll show my own technique and culture of the mandolin, and bring my whole view of the instrument."
Perhaps Mr. Rappaport will pull out some of the Pittsburgh Mandolin Society's collection of ethnic music from the turn of the century. "It's not just Italian -- it's Russian, Polish, Croatian and Serbian. We have old crumbling sheet music given to us from Slovakia.
"There's no boundaries because we are constantly expanding into new areas," he continues. "We started with Irish music at first, because it's adaptable, and Italian music because it was born for the instrument, and Eastern European because so many people here relate to it, but now we've got a piece in our program where one of our members plays the yue qin, which is a traditional Chinese lute. We can literally do any type of ethnicity or music, except maybe Tchaikovsky symphonies."
First Published March 10, 2010 12:00 am