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News / Life / Clark County Life

Step aside ukulele, mandolin madness comes to Vancouver

‘Always fun music and it’s always accessible’ at concert

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 2, 2024, 6:05am

For the past decade or two — and especially since a simplified mash-up of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” became maddeningly popular in the early 2000s — the ukulele has enjoyed a prolonged cultural moment as everybody’s favorite little musical buddy.

And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as we never forget about another fun, friendly, perfectly portable stringed instrument whose distinctive sound demands a little more attention: the mandolin.

The ukulele’s four nylon strings create a soft, mellow, modest sound that’s natural for strummed accompaniment. But the mandolin’s eight steel strings generate a bigger, sharper, shinier ring that propels it to starring roles in musical styles from Ukrainian classical to Kentucky bluegrass.

Pack masses of mandolins and mandolin relatives into a whole orchestra and the sound grows big, brilliant and beautiful, said Andy Blitzer, who lives in Ridgefield and rehearses every Tuesday with the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra. The 28-member group will perform a matinee concert at 3 p.m. Saturday at Vancouver’s First Presbyterian Church.

IF YOU GO

What: Oregon Mandolin Orchestra

When: 3 p.m. Saturday. Doors open 2:30 p.m.

Where: First Presbyterian Church, 4300 Main St., Vancouver.

Tickets: $15 at the door; $10 for students and seniors.

Information:www.oregonmandolinorchestra.org

Give a Listen

What is the sound of many, many mandolins?

Check out the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra in action at www.oregonmandolinorchestra.org/listen online.

“It’s a beautiful folk instrument and it’s very accessible music,” Blitzer said.

He recently relocated from New York City, where he played with the New York Mandolin Orchestra for 30 years, and eventually served as mandolin concertmaster (that is, lead instrumentalist in the group).

Getting involved in a new mandolin community was his No. 1 priority when he moved to Clark County to be near children and grandchildren, he said.

“The first thing I looked for was an orchestra to join,” he said. “I can safely say the mandolin orchestra here is superior to the one I was in in New York.”

Blitzer said he was hungry to play the guitar when he was a kid, but he was too small. His musician grandfather, a Ukrainian immigrant, started him on mandolin instead. Blitzer fell in love quickly — both with playing music and with the social life it brought him.

“I just love the camaraderie. I’ve been to mandolin conventions all over the country,” he said. “Music is such an important part of my life.”

Golden age

Archaeological evidence of stringed lutes dates all the way back to 3,000 B.C. The mandolin we recognize today took shape in the 1700s in Europe, and it enjoyed successive waves of popularity over the next couple of centuries. In the mid-1800s, troupes of visiting mandolinists from Spain and Italy led to a mandolin craze in the U.S., with a recognized golden age that lasted through World War I.

After that, it’s theorized, the mandolin’s popularity declined a bit because the little instrument was simply too quiet to keep up with the brash, brassy sound of jazz. But the mandolin found a new American home in bluegrass music, the fast-thinking, fast-picking invention of Kentucky native Bill Monroe.

Mandolin bands and orchestras never went away completely. In fact, they added additional muscle to the family in the form of slightly larger and larger-voiced mandolin relatives like mandolas, mandocellos and mandobasses. The Oregon Mandolin Orchestra has also recently added a section of guitarists.

The upcoming concert will feature serious classical sounds by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg; an American march; Japanese children’s folk melodies; and ballet music you may recognize from Saturday morning cartoons.

“It’s always fun music and it’s always accessible,” Blitzer said. “There’s no other sound quite like it.”

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