Reviews

Marianne Messina

REVIEW: PROVIDENCE MANDOLIN ORCHESTRA

If you missed the Providence Mandolin Orchestra’s recent concert at Goff Hall, you missed a local treasure. The internationally appreciated PMO is a unique musical delight.

Goff Memorial Hall, when not at its day job as part of the Rehoboth Town Library, doubles as a Country Western dance hall – and it just so happens to be an acoustic wonderland for mandolin orchestra. After songs end, a little tail of resonance wags in the air. The effect was ideally suited for the powerful musical piece called “Lament for Kosovo.” At song’s end, conductor Mark Davis remains frozen in the fetal self-hug of his final cut-off while the musical residue evaporates, and the audience remains silent, as if stunned.

At this concert, the PMO establishes how nimbly a mandolin orchestra can mix the sweet sound of baroque chamber music with the haunting quality of Celtic instrumental airs or the bright timbre and progressive layering of multi-track, 12-string guitar. And for such an assortment of small, plucky instruments, the PMO spans an amazing dynamic range. In a section of Owen Hartford’s rolling “Grooves #1,” Davis takes the mandolins from crisp, plucked-out half-notes that evoke celestial harps to sparse tings of mandolin sprinkled on air, to a high, ringing ensemble swell.

Featuring music from diverse international cities, the program, entitled “A Day in the Life of a City,” showcases the vital, contemporary music scene centered around composition for mandolin orchestra — outside the U.S., that is. The opening song, “The City Awakens,” was written by Dutch composer Emiel Stopler specifically for Providence Mandolin Orchestra. A bright, pleasant opener accented by soft, rhythmic guitar tapping, the song falls into an easy groove of call and response between guitar and mandolin. But before long, like dawn’s mercurial awakenings, the feel switches to a beat so jaunty it sets bassist Bob Asprinio to bobbing.

Another piece written expressly for mandolin orchestra, Betty Beath’s richly emotional “Lament for Kosovo,” takes full advantage of the nuanced voicings to spin a narrative of moods. From underneath the guitars’ soft, sweet melody a bass section plods out minor, Slavic-sounding scales. At one point, the mandolins scuttle down the scales like filmic violins for a scene in which someone, perhaps a caped anti-hero, breezes down a series of staircases. The piece features a painful caesura – it seems no one breathes — until guitars tip-toe into the stillness, soft and almost heartbreaking.

But in many other pieces, the music has an air of light whimsy. “Dreamtime,” a capricious piece by another Dutch composer Annette Kruisbrink, makes use of string areas beyond the mandolin’s bridge and nut, where aggressive strokes scratch like claw-swipes from mischievous elves. The concert’s fun numbers included intriguing arrangements of three Lennon/McCartney songs, starting with a “Penny Lane” that clipped along, mandolins voicing those well-known trumpet lines.

Songs from the Beatles’ orchestral experimentation have signature moving bass lines that work well for the mandolin orchestra. Robert Margo’s arrangements play with the complex dialogue (or elegant wrestling match) between bass and treble voicings. “I am the Walrus” ends with mandolins ascending ever-higher and bass descending ever-lower, as if towards heaven and hell.

The various stringed voices are so well-articulated that the familiar nature of these Beatles songs only highlights the orchestra’s versatility. For example, anyone familiar with the way “I am the Walrus” breaks into musical mayhem will be amazed at what excellent mayhem a group of nice mandolin-type instruments can make. And in “A Day in the Life,” the crescendo of the “turn you on” section shows that a three-man bass section — two mandocellos (Dan Moore, Matt Snyder) and an upright bass (Asprinio) — can pack a lot of umph. Margo’s arrangements wrap clever humor in surprise packages, like sneaky chromatic runs, sprightly melodic ellipses, tantalizing pauses (and, I could swear, a humming of “ah”s in “A Day in the Life”). Also, the audience got to participate in “I am the Walrus” by singing “Oh!” whenever conductor Mark Davis jabbed his finger in the air.

Audiophiles, the PMO will be collecting some of their exciting new material this spring on a CD – but you haven’t peaked until you hear this orchestra live in a resonant room.

* Posted by Marianne Messina on December 7, 2009 at 9:13pm

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“The concert was the best attended and most well received event in the five-year history of the Arts in the Village series. The house was sold out, with standing room only, and the inspired performance of the PMO musicians earned three standing ovations. The bond between the performers and the audience members reached a level of intimacy and aesthetic appreciation that is rarely experienced and will long be remembered by all who were present.”– Shawn Kendrick, Project Coordinator,
Arts in the Village Concert Series
“The PMO is a fine group, with a lovely mix of sound(s); Mark [Davis] conducts with rare finesse and a keen sense of musical direction.”– Victor Kioulaphides, composer, New York
“The orchestra’s performance was much more than idiomatic plucks and trills – it was a virtuoso display of the endless possibilities of this attractive instrument.”– Classical Guitar Magazine
“Congratulations on ‘Spectrum’ [CD]. It’s a tribute to the fine work you do in keeping the orchestra moving forward and attuned to new and challenging mandolin music from around the world.”– Will Melton, Vice President for Institutional Advancement, Rhode Island School of Design

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