The Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra
Members: For a complete list of the 40 players, visit www.baltimoremandolinorchestra.org.
Who we talked to: Jim Blanchard, 67, second mandolin
How is the orchestra arranged? We're set up like a string orchestra. We have first mandolin like first violin and second violin. First mandolins usually carry the melody, which is the way it is in a regular string orchestra. There are different kinds of mandolins. There are . . . mandolas, which are tuned like violas. They're a little bit lower. We have mandocellos (and) mandobasses, so there is a whole range of instruments in the mandolin family like the instruments in a string orchestra. We also have some classical guitars.
How did you get interested in the mandolin? I started in grade school with the trumpet. When I went away to college, I picked up the guitar. That was during the folk era, and I learned how to play that by myself, essentially. In the early '70s . . . I had a friend in the service who played the mandolin, so I kind of learned to play that by myself. I didn't do much with it for a long, long time until I joined the mandolin orchestra here, which was in 2002. Then, I got serious about it. I took lessons, and I've stuck with it ever since.
How did you hear about the orchestra? Actually, I went to a concert in 1981. I saw it advertised in the newspaper and I said, "this is something I want to do someday." I figured I would have to audition in front of a panel of judges . . . so I was afraid I might embarrass myself. I was working for the government, and I retired in 2001, and I decided to go take the plunge.
Can you share some of the history of the organization? We're continuing a tradition. Mandolins were very popular in this country about 100 years ago. Everybody had mandolins. They were easy to play. They were portable and small. It was kind of fashionable to play the mandolin at the time. There were mandolin orchestras and mandolin clubs at most of the colleges and almost every town and city. Then the banjo came along and jazz came along, and they kind of overshadowed mandolin playing. (Mandolins) went into a decline in the '20s, which is kind of funny because (The Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra) was founded in 1924. The man who founded it was a music teacher in Baltimore. He had a bunch of guitar students and he turned them on to the mandolin.
The mandolin is similar to the guitar, right? Yeah. It's smaller. It's tuned like a violin. A violin has four strings. A mandolin has eight strings. There are four pairs of strings. There are two strings tuned to one note. It's kind of hard to keep them in tune (because) those two strings are supposed to be tuned to the same note need to be as close as you can get. If they're not, it sounds pretty bad. We play with a pick. Violins can get a sustained sound by drawing the bow across the strings. You can't do that with a mandolin. We have this technique called tremolo where we rub the pick across the strings very rapidly up and down. That's how we get the sustained sound.
What type of music do you play? We tend to play up-tempo pieces for . . . like a couple show tunes and marches and things like that. We do (what) I guess you'd call . . . light classical pieces. They're not long, multi-movement classical pieces. Most of it's from the romantic period or even before that. We play some ragtime music. We play a lot of Italian melodies because it is an Italian instrument. Our soprano Beatrice Gilbert will be singing. We're going to be featuring her at the (York Little Theatre) concert. We're going to be playing two sets in York . . . so she will end both sets.
Is there music printed for the mandolin? During the heyday of mandolin . . . there was a lot of music written and printed for mandolin orchestras. Whenever the publisher came out with a (John Philip Sousa) march for a band, they always came out with a mandolin orchestra arrangement. We also have stuff that was . . . adapted for mandolin. Then, we have stuff that's been composed recently.
Are you seeing a resurgence in interest? We're doing what we can to make the mandolin more interesting and more popular. It's most popular these days in bluegrass bands. Bill Monroe started playing the mandolin in a bluegrass band back in the '40s. They play quite differently than we do. They go for these breakneck speeds and fancy runs. The stuff we play is . . . more melodic and tuneful. The stuff they play is just dazzling, but there's not much depth to it. We are seeing a resurgence in interest. We're one of about . . . 30 mandolin orchestras these days in the country. We keep seeing new ones being formed. There's an organization . . . most of us belong to that's called the Classical Mandolin Society of America. They have a convention every year.
- Erin McCracken, FlipSide staff
If you go
The Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at York Little Theatre, 27 S. Belmont St., Spring Garden Township. The orchestra is an ensemble of mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos, mandobasses and classical guitars. Members play a mix of classical music, marches, rags, show tunes and traditional compositions. Ticket cost $15. The event is a fundraiser for YLT. For details and tickets, call 854-5715 or visit www.ylt.org.
For details about The Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra: www.baltimoremandolinorchestra.org
Listen to the interview: www.flipsidepa.com
To read more meet-the-artist interviews: www.flipsidepa.com/musicdirectory
Classical Mandolin Society of America convention
The Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra will host the 25th annual CMSA convention Oct. 12 to 16 at the Sheraton Baltimore North Hotel, 903 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson, Md.
Jim Blanchard of the BMO said that the conventions usually draw about 150 mandolin players from around the world. Headlining mandolin players will perform an Oct. 14 concert.
An en masse concert, featuring more than 100 musicians, will be held Oct. 15 at Goucher College's auditorium, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson, Md.
For details, visit www.baltimoremandolinorchestra.org.