Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Mandolins Have a Rich, Complex Ethnic History

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Mandolins Have a Rich, Complex Ethnic History

Article excerpt

Think of mandolins, and you might think of an Italian troubadour outside a lady's window. Or maybe Bill Monroe, quick-picking a bluegrass tune.

But mandolins are also Jewish, says Harvey Weitzner of Mahwah. And that history is intimately connected with the nine-decade history of the New York Mandolin Orchestra, celebrating its 90th birthday with a concert at the New York Blood Center's auditorium (yes, they have one).

"Jewish immigrants might not have been able to afford violins, but they wanted their kids to have instruments," says Weitzner, 60, who has been playing mandolin in the orchestra since 1986.

Or to be precise, he plays mandola - a lower-register instrument (in the c clef) that corresponds somewhat to a viola. Mandolins, like symphony strings, come in different registers: There are mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos and mandobasses. Moreover, a mandolin - technically eight strings, but in reality four sets of two - is tuned much as a violin would be, making it a closer relative to concert instruments than to a guitar or ukulele. No wonder immigrant parents with classical backgrounds wanted their kids to play one.

"At the turn of the century, the mandolin was a big craze," Weitzner says. "I would see these pictures [of mandolin orchestras] and I would say, 'What's up with those people?' "

After a long period of eclipse, the mandolin may be following the accordion and ukulele back into the cultural mainstream. Chris Thile, featured in the movie "Inside Llewyn Davis," may be poised to do for the mandolin what Israel Kamakawiwo'ole ("Over the Rainbow") did for the ukulele 15 years ago. Meanwhile, there are mandolin orchestras keeping up the old traditions, not just in New York but in New Jersey, where the 72-year-old Bloomfield Mandolin Orchestra has its own long history. But its New York cousin has it beat, by 18 years.

"When I went to see this orchestra, I said, 'Hey, I want to do this,' " says Weitzner, whose family runs a chain of music stores. "These people are having fun. It was really a social thing for me. I can immerse myself in it, and forget all my day-to-day aggravation. Some people play golf, but the orchestra really did it for me. …

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