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Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010

Mandolin Orchestra Going Strong at 110

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“We’re 110 years old, but there are no original members,” says Linda Binder, music director of the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra, making light of a long history. Incorporated in 1900 as a nonprofit organization, the Orchestra is the oldest band in town, adding new members as old ones have departed over the generations. For some musicians, the Mandolin Orchestra is a father-son, father-daughter affair: The dad of the Orchestra’s current board president, Lisa Lyons, had been in the band for decades, joining in the 1930s and absenting himself only for World War II.

Their repertoire has evolved over time, but the core elements remain—the fox trots, waltzes, marches and light classics that were the Orchestra’s staples at the turn of the previous century. Their 2007 CD, Unplugged Since 1900, steps back into an Old Milwaukee of Sunday-afternoon beer gardens and band shell concerts. The songs are diverse in origin, incorporating polka and tango, ragtime and waltz along with Russian and Spanish melodies. Several tracks have local ties. Milwaukee’s William C. Stahl, who also composed an arrangement for mandolins for “On Wisconsin,” wrote the song “Minstrel Man.” Regardless of their sources, the numbers are performed in crisp, liltingly elegant fashion. The two-dozen members, including many accomplished in other fields of music, play not only conventional mandolins but also mando-bass, mandocello and tenor mandola; guitar and flute are also heard.

Perhaps because the city looked to Europe for its culture, Milwaukee was a mandolin mecca for players, songwriters and music publishers before World War I. Milwaukee had a Jewish mandolin orchestra in those days and Marquette had a mandolin club.

“The orchestras were a chance for amateurs to get together and make music,” Binder says. “The Gibson company promoted new instruments, like the mandocello, with the idea that the players would form large orchestras.”

Like many of the Orchestra’s members, Bill Rickards played guitar for many years before taking up mandolin. “It’s fretted like a guitar but tuned like a violin,” he says. “Violinists and guitarists can come to it easily.”

Under her direction, Binder has added Brazilian and other numbers. She’d like to tackle Radiohead and current bands, but says, “What I found is that there is a great regard among our members for the tradition of the orchestra. Everyone wants to play the old music, but there is interest in shaking up the repertoire—a little bit.”

With two CDs to their credit, the Orchestra has entered the Digital Age. Next step: downloading century-old mandolin tunes?

The Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra marks its 110th birthday with an 8 p.m. concert Oct. 2 at the Cedarburg Cultural Center, W62 N546 Washington Ave., Cedarburg. For information, call (262) 375-3676 or visit www.cedarburgculturalcenter.org.