That's the prediction of some of the members of the Providence Mandolin Orchestra who say they already see signs of a comeback for an instrument whose popularity at the turn of the century would have rivaled that of rock 'n' roll today.
Numbers alone seem to suggest that something is going on. Though mandolin orchestras were very popular in the early part of this century -- Providence alone had three large mandolin orchestras back in the 1920s and 1930s -- they gradually faded from the scene as musical tastes changed.
But then along came Hibbard Perry, founder of one of those early mandolin orchestras, the Providence Plectral Society. It was Perry's dream to revive the orchestra, and that's what he did in 1973. Working with some of his former students, he renamed the group the Providence Mandolin Orchestra.
In the years since, membership has jumped from 4 or 5 players to an orchestra of 24. At the same time, other guitar and mandolin groups have begun popping up again all over the country, bringing the total number, by some estimates, to more than 100.
A broad and diverse group it is. In Providence, the membership ranges from such musical veterans as Yvette Cote of Woonsocket, who first played the mandolin in the 1940s, dropped it for 30 years, and picked it up again when she heard the orchestra perform in Burrillville, to relative newcomers like Lisa Newby, a Journal-Bulletin picture editor who picked up the mandolin for the first time just 18 months ago.
Conductor Mark Morgan Davis, a guitarist, and his wife Marilynn Mair, a mandolin player, are well-known performers whose recordings as a duo have sold more than 100,000 copies over the years. Six years ago they took the orchestra to northern Spain for an international music festival that brought mandolin and string orchestras from all over the world. The Providence Mandolin Orchestra was the only United States group that was invited.
Though people may be apt to associate the mandolin with 12th or 13th century Spain or Italy, its current popularity may be due more to the ingenuity of Orville Gibson of Kalamazoo, Michigan, who at the turn of the century created a new series of mandolin instruments based on the principles of the violin. By inventing the mandola, the mandocello and mandobass -- counterparts to the string viola, cello and bass viole -- Gibson opened the door to creating a full mandolin orchestra, with a full range of sound.
Even before Gibson, however, America had already warmed to the mandolin. The instrument's first reported use in America was in 1760, when Guiseppi Gualdo, an Italian from England, brought the instrument to Philadelphia. But America's craze for the mandolin didn't actually begin until 1878, when a group of musicians from Spain, calling themselves the Spanish Students, took the country by storm with a concert tour.
Conductor Davis says the important thing to remember about those times was that there were no radios or record players. If people wanted to listen to music, they needed to find live performers. The need for local talent fueled the creation of amateur mandolin ensembles all over the country.
Dr. Mac Johnston, a physician at Harvard Pilgrim Health who switched from playing classical guitar to mandola about five years ago, also sees the movement growing. He notes that when the Association of Mandolinists held its national convention in Providence 18 months ago, it drew 120 musicians, twice the number of five years earlier. Johnston believes there is, already, a strong interest in the mandolin in Rhode Island because of the large numbers of older people here who may have played the mandolin earlier in their lifetimes.
The music is wide ranging, taking in various folkloric traditions, including Spanish, Brazilian and Appalachian, as well as classical and contemporary. The group already has one cassette recording out, Songs Without Words, and is preparing for a new CD soon.
Locally, the orchestra holds weekly rehearsals every Tuesday evening at Nathan Bishop Middle School on the East Side, with free seminars from time to time at the Music School for people interested in learning more about the mandolin.
(Excerpted from an article in the Providence Journal-Bulletin Metro Edition, Wednesday, April 9, 1997, by Staff Writer Richard C. Dujardin.)
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