Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra celebrating 10 years

| Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

A decade ago, the Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra held its first concert after a 40-year hiatus.

Since then, it has become one of the largest orchestras of its type in the country. Its 10th anniversary concert this weekend will mark the launch of its second CD, “From Faraway Shores.”

“The mandolin is the instrument most like the human voice” says conductor Charley Rappaport. “In the hands of someone who plays well, it is a moving and uplifting sound.

“This concert will include light classical, folk and contemporary music, along with a broad range of ethnic music from the many shores where the mandolin comes from.”

The Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra was founded in 1919, during an era in which the mandolin was the most popular instrument in America. A mandolin often arrived with immigrant families, and was a staple in most homes where families gathered to sing on the front porch or in the parlor. A mandolin even could be ordered through the Sears catalog for 75 cents. But after World War II, the instrument lost popularity.

It's now making a comeback, says Rappaport, who has been named a master folk musician by the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts. He composes for and teaches mandolin.

“The younger generation is discovering it, and it is having a rebirth in everything from bluegrass to jazz to rock,” Rappaport says. “Paul McCartney has played the mandolin in concerts. It's one of the easiest instruments to learn how to play.”

Some folks are discovering mandolins in their attics, or inheriting the instrument, and come to a Monday night rehearsal at St. John's Lutheran Church of Highland in McCandless.

Richard Stuempges of Bellevue was given his grandfather's mando-bass, a rare version similar to a cello.

“I decided that when I retired, I would learn how to play,” he says.

“I came to an orchestra rehearsal, and they invited me to play, saying that this is a rare instrument and they needed this sound,” says Stuempges, who retired as principal of Northgate's Avalon Elementary School four years ago.

Professional musicians, such as Norman Azinger, director of the Pittsburgh Banjo Club, play alongside newer members, who sometimes include multiple members of the same family.

“This really is an intergenerational instrument,” says Dave Ruppert of Zelienople, who started the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra.

Players range in age from 12 to 80-plus.

Some have come to the orchestra through the “farm market outreach” as the conductor calls the outreach of Carol Palmer, a mandolin teacher at the Pittsburgh Folk Music Society's Calliope House. On weekends, she often plays folk music at the Mt. Lebanon Farmers Market.

“I'll grab people and say, ‘Would you like to try a mandolin?'” Palmer says. “Some look at me funny, and others say, ‘Sure.' People are delighted with how easy it is to learn and how beautiful it sounds.”

One of the Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra concert traditions is a number with Palmer's beginning mandolin students. It began the year a young student lamented that her friends had made fun of her for playing the mandolin. That changed after the concert.

“It's become a tradition that, at the end of the number, friends stand up and clap for them,” Palmer says.

Mandolins of various sizes replicate the sounds of a typical orchestra. The 40-member group includes guitars, clarinet and drums, giving it a unique sound, often described as “joyful.”

“I believe we are the only mandolin orchestra in the country that includes this diversity,” says percussionist Jenda Domaracki.

The concert will pay homage to the first Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra concert 10 years ago. Many of the same artists will perform, including founder Alan Epstein; the Allegheny Drifters, a renowned bluegrass band; The Great American Gypsies; and vocalist Gary Burdick.

“At almost every concert, we have someone who comes up to us with tears in their eyes,” Rappaport says. “They say things like, ‘I haven't heard music like that since I was in Naples in the 1940s.' ”

Jane Miller is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.

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