Plucking heartstrings

Mandolin: Professional musicians and amateurs join forces to celebrate an unusual instrument. Mandolin orchestra plays to an appreciative crowd

May 22, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Faces told the story best.

As the musicians strummed and picked and conjured subtle tones, and the soprano's voice lifted Porgy and Bess into the church rafters -- "Summertime, and the livin' is easy the fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high" -- many in the crowded church wore expressions of heartfelt pleasure.

"The music made me feel I was in the meadows of Cumberland, with the fog and mist coming up in the morning," said Vonny Eckman, one of about 250 people who packed St. John's Lutheran Church in Parkville yesterday for the performance of an orchestra whose roots reach back to 1920s Baltimore.

"If I looked a bit dreamy, it's because this music made me feel that way," she said.

Creating the mood and emotion was the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra, a group of 32 people -- some professional musicians, some amateurs new to the music scene -- who gather weekly to practice on the delicate, pear-shaped instruments at a retirement home in Towson. The group presents a handful of concerts each year.

"When you listen to it and then you play it, it's easy to fall in love with the mandolin," said Joyce Adams, 66, one of the orchestra's leaders.

From her Parkville home, Adams teaches or advises many of the orchestra's members -- including a 77-year-old grandmother who plays second mandolin, despite not having played an instrument for most of her life, and professional musicians who play with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Adams said listening to the mandolin orchestra, the only performance group in Baltimore that is dedicated exclusively to the mandolin, takes one on a historical, musical journey through the past century.

The group was founded in 1925 by Conrad Gebelein, bandmaster at the Johns Hopkins University and a giant in Baltimore's music scene. At the time, the mandolin, which resembles a small guitar but is tuned like a violin, was a popular instrument, largely because of its accessibility to working-class people.

The German-born Gebelein led the group to great popularity in town, even forming an offshoot band that played Hawaiian music. But when the Depression hit, the Italian-born instrument waned in popularity and was replaced by the less-expensive banjo, then by the guitar.

"We're trying to help bring it back," said David Evans, the orchestra's conductor, who trained and taught at Peabody Conservatory and who works today at a local software company, composing music for video games. He also performs with a quartet of group members whose rendition of "Stormy Weather" is played regularly on the National Public Radio program "Marketplace."

Gebelein disbanded the orchestra in the 1930s. The group might never have been heard from again if not for his determination, at age 80, to revive it for a 50th anniversary concert in 1975.

"We've been up and running since then," said Adams, who decided to pick up the mandolin after hearing that 1975 show at the Johns Hopkins University.

When Gebelein suffered a debilitating stroke just days before a concert, the orchestra scrambled to find a leader.

Adams recalled Benjamin Richard Durant, a talented African-American violin player who played with her in the Towson University Orchestra and who had once mentioned that his father had played the mandolin. "I called him up out of the blue and asked him, `Remember me? Would you please help us out?' "

Durant, who taught music at what is now Baltimore City Community College and was a bandmaster in the Army, became the group's leader. He conducted from his wheelchair, having lost his legs in a traffic accident. He died in 1986.

"He was as talented as they come," Adams recalled yesterday. "Even though most of us are amateurs and in this for the fun of it, he demanded strict professionalism."

Yesterday, sitting in the first row and looking regal in her blue dress, was Durant's widow, Franzetta. She traveled from New Jersey, as she does about once a year, to hear the band her husband led.

As the orchestra warmed up, Franzetta Durant said hearing the group helped her honor her husband. His work shattered the stereotype that blacks could not play classical music, she said.

"It's a personal feeling of accomplishment to hear them play," said Durant. "They've really improved their tone."

She sat spellbound as the musicians performed songs by American artists, including a Duke Ellington tune her husband arranged for the group. First uplifting, then somber, then sweet, the music carried the audience through a range of emotions.

"It's romantic, kind of mellow, as opposed to being strident," said David Keener, 31, who traveled from Lancaster, Pa., with his wife for the performance.

"It reminds you of Venice," said Dave Warfel, a guitar player who said he's intrigued by the range of the mandolin.

"It sounds like you are hearing a whole orchestra, with violins and all," said Ruth Winebrenner, a 68-year-old member of the St. John's congregation.

Vonny Eckman summed up the afternoon. The Carlisle, Pa., woman sat attentively when Don Tison, who in his professional life is lead trumpet player with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, showed the audience a few mandolin techniques.

As he picked his way through a few romantic chords, Eckman closed her eyes for a moment, tilted her head back and smiled.

"Just imagining," she said later, thinking back on the moment. "How nice."

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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