Mandolins as the main event in Ridgefield

Orchestra showcases the plucky charm of little instrument

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

If you go

• What: Oregon Mandolin Orchestra.

• When: 2 p.m. Sunday.

• Where: Old Liberty Theater, 115 N. Main Ave., Ridgefield.

• Tickets: $15

 Contact: 360-887-7260 or www.oldlibertytheater.com

Decades before the guitar became undisputed king of do-it-yourself music, amateur musicians all over the globe formed clubs, bands and whole orchestras based on a smaller, sweeter, even handier stringed instrument: the mandolin.

“It’s small. It’s portable. It’s cute,” said Felida resident Michael Tognetti. And, it’s not as complicated to learn as it looks, since the eight strings are actually four paired sets — so it’s really a four-stringed instrument as far as your fingers are concerned. As far as your ears are concerned, though, it’s eight chiming strings that can fly as fast and pretty as a birdsong.

Most Americans associate the mandolin with bluegrass trailblazer Bill Monroe. But the mandolin has a grander history, and a bigger sound, than that. Tognetti, a longtime guitar dabbler, said he was eventually inspired to take up the mandolin because it shares his proud Italian heritage. It was in Naples in the early 1700s that the modern mandolin took shape; Tognetti got interested when he was living in Europe and serving in the military.

Tognetti even had his own mandolin custom designed and handmade in the style of one of its historical precursors, a medieval instrument called a cytole. Tognetti’s unique instrument boasts seven different styles of wood, a scalloped back and, occupying the sound hole, an intricate hand-carved rose-window pattern that’s modeled after a specific 15th century chapel he’s visited in Bergamo, Italy.

“I come from a family of many accordion players, but that never spoke to me,” Tognetti said. “Nobody in my family plays mandolin, but it drew me.”

If you also feel drawn, check out the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra on Sunday, as it makes its final stop in a three-city weekend tour at Ridgefield’s Old Liberty Theater. This 24-piece orchestra aims to popularize the instrument as well as the whole idea of amateur, community music-making. And it deepens the mandolin’s naturally chirpy palate by including some larger cousins of the little instrument — mandolas, mandocellos and one four-stringed mandobass.

The orchestra is directed by Portland’s leading mandolinist, Brian Oberlin, and this tour also features mandolin luminary Evan Marshall as special guest. (Now you can do the math: at full power the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra is 23 instruments times eight strings, plus one four-stringed mandobass, plus one eight-stringed special guest — for an astonishing total of 196 strings chiming simultaneously.)

Marshall will be the featured soloist as the orchestra plays violin works by Mozart that were transcribed for mandolin, as well as the 1799 Mandolin Concerto by Austrian composer Johann Hummel. There’ll also be a smattering of American folk classics. At some point during the concert, Oberlin and Marshall will step forward and punch it up as the “Twin Mandolin Slingers,” offering up some supersonic swing and bluegrass.

Meanwhile, if you’re curious about the modern mandolin’s true diversity and sheer muscle, check out the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra’s Youtube video page. That’s where, in addition to classical classics and mandatory mandolin standards such as the theme from “The Godfather,” you can enjoy a rousing mandolin march in “Grid Iron Heroes,” the Detroit Lions fight song, and even the mounting psychedelic tension of “Kashmir” by legendary rockers Led Zeppelin.