Mike Schroeder is dreaming of a classical mandolin orchestra
Bluegrass musician wants to revive a tradition
By RONNI LUNDY Staff Writer
Mike Schroeder began playing mandolin when he was 19. For Kentucky mandolinists, that's late.
Consider that Ricky Skaggs, the Louisa native turned Nashville star and winner of numerous awards for his prowess on the instrument, was only 6 when he climbed up on a box on a regional television show and told Lester Flatt, "I want to pick."
Bowling Green's Sam Bush, who is leader of the New Grass Revival, three time winner of the annual Frets award for Best Mandolin Player and the pioneer of the hot-rocking progressive-bluegrass style, was 11 when his father brought him to Durlauf's in Louisville to buy his first mandolin.
And rumor has it that Bill Monroe, the Rosine native credited with bringing the mandolin out of the string-band background and into the foreground of his bluegrass sound, was born with a silver pick In mouth.
By such standards, then, Schroeder is a Johnny-come-lately, but he may have a major impact on mandolin playing in Kentucky. He wants to make Louisville the home base for a regional classical mandolin orchestra.
Such orchestras were popular in the United States from the turn of the century through the 1920s and have recently enjoyed a small revival in a number of cities, including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Baltimore, Phoenix, Cleveland, Providence, R.I., and Tacoma Park, Md. They usually consist of 20 to 30 players on mandolin, mandola, mandocello, guitar and bass.
"There's an energy that's so much greater in the experience of playing with an orchestra than when playing with just three or four other instrumentalists," Schroeder said. "My dream is to have that experience right here."
The dream grew out of classical mandolin studies that he began three years ago because the bluegrass and traditional-music outlets he'd found didn't satisfy his interest in the instrument.
"My approach to learning an instrument has been to collect all the information I can, to learn as many ways to use it as I can," he said.
Schroeder, assistant manager for the Development Finance Center of the Louisville Chamber of Commerce, plays in a bluegrass band and an old time string band.
Nine years ago he joined New Horizon, which mixes older and contemporary bluegrass styles. He's proficient at both Monroe's traditional approach and at the modern, improvisational techniques pioneered by young turks such as Bush, David Grisman and, to a lesser extent, Skaggs.
With the Buzzard Rock String Band, a group he joined in 1982, Schroeder has learned to play in the dance oriented ensemble style of old-time string music. But three years ago he decided to expand his repertoire by learning classical mandolin.
"The first mandolin player I heard was at the bluegrass festival down on the Belvedere, and I was just impressed with the speed," Schroeder said. "I thought, 'Gee, I'd love to see my fingers move that quickly, I want to play mandolin.'"
"But my interest never really was in bluegrass per se. I came into bluegrass because it was the vehicle to play mandolin. I went on to classical mandolin because I wanted to keep learning."
After studying on his own, Schroeder attended intensive, two week-long classical-mandolin work shops - the first in Cleveland in 1986 and the second on Long Island in 1987. They were led by Keith Harris, a respected Australian classical mandolinist who travels the world teaching.
Schroeder said the first workshop he took "was like relearning every technique I'd done for 10 years. We'd spend eight hours working on one simple down-stroke. In one week with Keith I felt I'd learned more than in 10 years of playing bluegrass."
But Schroeder said his bluegrass background has been a plus in the world of classical mandolin.
"When I would play for them (Harris and the other members of the workshop), they at first couldn't understand how I could do that without reading anything."
Because of his performances in the workshops, Schroeder was chosen last year to be on the board of directors for the Classical Mandolin Society of America At 31, he is one of the youngest board members.
This summer he'll go to Washington, D.C., for another intensive one week session. He'll also play there with the North American Mandolin Orchestra on July 17.
This won't be the first time Schroeder has played in a mandolin orchestra After each of the intensive sessions, he has performed with an orchestra composed of workshop participants and regional mandolinists. Those experiences were so exciting, he said, that he became determined to create an orchestra in Louisville.
"Here I am traveling around the country to participate in these sorts of things, but it seems to me there must be people here and in the region to play with as well."
He is trying to find those people through announcements in the national mandolin society newsletter, in music stores and in magazines. He's also spreading the word through folk-music venues, in the belief that there are other bluegrass mandolin players who are interested in expanding horizons. (The Lonesome Pine Special included an invitation to join the proposed orchestra in its program at the end of the season in the Kentucky Center for the Arts.)
If Schroeder establishes his mandolin orchestra, it won't be the first in Louisville. As something of an amateur mandolin historian, Schroeder combined references at local libraries and the Filson Club and learned that the mandolin scene once flourished in Louisville.
Schroeder said he has found "mentions of eight or nine mandolin orchestras, their directors and the places that they met here" at the turn of the century.
Schroeder found photos of the Louisville Mandolin Orchestra and the Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra, both societies that thrived here in the 1890s. And he's found a Courier-Journal story from 1940 that recounts the history of the Louisville Mandolin and Guitar Club - a group that was popular in the region in the Gay '90s.
He also has a copy of "The Colonel's Mandolin Band." It's an album of old hymns played by a children's mandolin orchestra from Shelbyville, Ky., and recorded in the late 1960s. The group's mandolins and production of the record were underwritten by Col. Harland Sanders, who appears in the album cover photo with the band.
The album sets a precedent for corporate "underwriting" of a local mandolin orchestra, Schroeder said jokingly. Then he added seriously that he hopes to attract funds from local corporations and arts organizations if he succeeds in forming an orchestra.
Schroeder said the proposed orchestra would meet bi-monthly to practice and would perform quarterly concerts in the region.
The Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra organized by H.L.B. Sheetz in January 1892 Photo: The Filson Club
By ANDREW ADLER Staff Critic
"It's a mando renaissance," Mike Marshall, co-founder of the Modern Mandolin Quartet, quipped last night at the opening concert in this season's Lonesome Pine Special series. Judging from the vociferous crowd, he may be right.
The MMQ was one of several forces gathered for "Mando Magnificat," a celebration of the mandolin in its various guises. A sold-out house at the Kentucky Center for the Arts' Bomhard Theater cheered its heroes and their instruments, which have never garnered the appreciation accorded more "legitimate" tools of the trade.
Never mind that Vivaldi wrote several concertos for the instrument, or that Beethoven composed for it. The mandolin customarily is shunted off into a corner, deemed fit only for informal performances, or for specific (and restricted) color effects In orchestral pieces.
Recently, however, a welcome evolution has occurred. Mandolin virtuosos such as bluegrass legend Bill Monroe have always been with us. But others, typified by Jethro Burns, New Grass Revival's Sam Bush and Marshall have explored alternatives. The mandolin can now be conceived of as a classical instrument. It is remarkably effective in transcriptions of works composed for more familiar instruments, including the human voice.
Nothing proved this so convincingly as MMQ's classically based performances. The artists-who besides Marshall included Paul Binkley, John Imholz and Dana Rath-played principally as an analogy of a string quartet two soprano instruments, a mandola (the equivalent of a viola) and a mandocello.
Repertoire ranged from J. S. Bach to Shostakovich, encompassing quartet transcriptions plus arrangements of music written for diverse ensembles. The mandolin is fine at clarifying multiple musical lines: One could revel in MMQ's gloss on Bach's Concerto for Two Violins (the opening movement), in which the treble mandolins took the solo parts, with a keyboard reduction of the orchestral part divided between the remaining two instruments.
Similar success accompanied arrangements of quartet movements by Haydn (the "Lark") and Beethoven (Opus 130), two pieces from Ravel's "Mother Goose" suite, Debussy's piano prelude "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair" and the rollicking Polka from Shostakovich's ballet "The Golden Age."
Earlier, Bush played an exceptionally challenging medley of tunes, with inspirations as diverse as Monroe and Ellington. The mandolin is usually heard played at hypervelocity, and while Bush's articulation was amazing, he also impressed with his nuanced dynamics, contrasting vibrato and qualities of plucking.
The concert opened with the premiere performance by the Louisville Mandolin Orchestra, a 23-member group conducted by Jim Bates. Comprising mandolins, mandolas, mandocello, guitars and string bass, the orchestra played engaging suites by Elke Tober-Voght and Fried Walter. Though ensemble was some times spotty, the interpretations were consistently skillful and spirited.
The Louisville Mandolin Orchestra presents its premier performance with the Modern Mandolin Quartet and mandolinist Sam Bush. Lonesome Pine Artistic Director Richard Van Kleeck conducts.
by Rick Mattingly
To some folks, the name Louisville Mandolin Orchestra might sound like the moniker for a giant bluegrass band. But the bluegrass style doesn’t encompass the history and versatility of the mandolin any more than bluegrass fiddling represents the totality of the violin.
“The mandolin originated in Italy within the folk-music and classical traditions, and mandolin is very popular in Europe,” says Jim Bates, the 28 member Louisville Mandolin Orchestra’s affable conductor. “Germany alone has well over 2,000 mandolin orchestras, which is kind of hard to fathom in this country.” But mandolin orchestras exist in a number of U.S. cities, and many have been going since the early 1900s. Although, at only 10 years of age, the Louisville Mandolin Orchestra is “right out of the cradle,” as LMO president Joe Burch puts it, the mandolin orchestra tradition in Louisville dates hack at least a century.
“Before Mike Schroeder founded the Louisville Mandolin Orchestra in 1988, he did some research and uncovered evidence that there were seven or eight mandolin orchestras in Louisville in the 1890s,” Bates says. “I’m a doctoral candidate in musicology at U of L, and I did a paper recently on the mandolin orchestra tradition in Louisville. In the process, I met (Courier-Journal deputy managing editor) Bill Ellison, who had researched a Louisville composer named John Mason Strauss. Strauss had been a member of the Louisville Mandolin and Guitar Club, which was probably the most well known of the local mandolin orchestras.
“That group had a pretty colorful existence,” Bates says with a mixture of amusement and awe. “They were all over the place in the region, playing concerts as well as serenading girls outside their windows. Reportedly, women threw them all kinds of notes, scarves and gloves. Every June, to mark their anniversary, they played a (river boat) concert floating down the Ohio river, and it was one of the social events of the summer season.”
he Louisville Mandolin and Guitar Club also got quite a bit of local newspaper coverage, no doubt enticed by the inclusion of their programs of “The Louisville Times Newspaper March,” a piece composed by Strauss. The original mandolin orchestra arrangement of that Piece was lost, but Bates secured a piano arrangement and adapted it for the Louisville Mandolin Orchestra, which has performed it at the Filson Club.
Original pieces that have been composed for the Louisville Mandolin Orchestra include The Louisville Suite by former LMO member John Goodin, which includes “Up River Road,” “Cave Hill” and “Locust Grove.” The group also inspired Sinfonietta by A. Paul Johnson, a National Endowment for the Arts composer who discovered the LMO while living in Bardstown a few years ago.
“Paul came to one of our rehearsals, and a couple of weeks later we had a three-movement composition,” Bates says. “We recorded it for a CD compilation of his works. He now lives in the St. Petersburg area. The Florida Arts Council heard the CD and really loved the piece he wrote for us, and they’ve nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize.
The scope of the group’s repertoire is evident on its self-produced CD, FolkWorks, which features a Russian “Balalaika Medley,” “Ten Pieces for Children” by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, an “Irish Folk Suite” and a “Stephen Foster Medley.” The CD is available locally at ear-X-tacy stores and at Disc Jockey Records on Shelbyville Road. The Louisville Mandolin Orchestra also appears on five tracks of a CD titled The New York Times, featuring marches dedicated to American Newspapers. (Ironically, “The Louisville Times Newspaper March” is not included.) The CD was produced by The Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky.
With its basic instrumentation of first and second mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos, guitar and bass, the LMO functions much like a traditional string orchestra, except that the plucked instruments give the group a somewhat brittle staccato sound.
“We’re like a giant harpsichord, played by 20 hands,” Bates says, laughing.
“Compared to the European mandolin orchestras, we do have a different sound,” adds Burch. “They use round-back, classical-style instruments, whereas we use mostly American flat-back mandolins, which are brighter and punchier sounding. Also, we use steel-string guitars, but in Europe they use nylon-string guitars. And we’ve introduced other instruments into the group on occasion, including harp, accordion, banjo, violin and pennywhistle.”
Members of the group have a variety of musical backgrounds. Some, like Schroeder, started as bluegrass players and were drawn into classical mandolin as a way of expanding their knowledge of the instrument. Others started out as violin, viola and cello players who easily made the transition to mandolin, mandola and mandocello, as the tunings are identical. “One thing that’s different about our orchestra than some of the others is that our median age is much younger,” Bates says. “We have young adults, and even high school kids who also play in the Louisville Youth Orchestra. So that gives our group a lot of energy.”
Since their debut at the “Mando Magnificat” concert, presented as part of the Lonesome Pine Special series at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in October 1988, the Louisville Mandolin Orchestra has performed about four times a year, including three trips to Europe, but the group doesn’t announce a formal concert schedule. Quartets and quintets composed of LMO members often perform at weddings, parties and neighborhood festivals.
Watching the group rehearse in Burch’s garage on a recent Saturday morning, it was obvious that the members strive for excellence in their performance. But it was also apparent that everyone was having a good time playing music together, and a “club” atmosphere prevailed.
“We have an open-door policy,” Bates says. “Anyone who is enthusiastic about the mandolin and loves to play music is welcome to join.
“I’m about the only one in the group who does music for a living,” says Bates, who is music director of the Louisville Youth Orchestra and teaches bass and music history at U of L’s School of Music. “Besides representing the mandolin orchestra tradition, we also represent a great tradition of amateur music-making in America.”