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Outdoors with the City’s Century-Old Band

Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra to perform at Lynden Sculpture Garden

Sep. 20, 2016
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“We are as much a part of Milwaukee as Harley-Davidson,” insists Renee Izquierdo, who co-directs the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra with Elina Chekan. If measured on a timeline, the orchestra is even more embedded in the city than the motorcycle company. Messrs. Harley and Davidson built their first bike in 1903. Tracing its origins to 1900, MMO is the city’s longest running band or musical institution, older than the Milwaukee Symphony or the Florentine Opera.

And although the 20-some member orchestra is one of the city’s overlooked cultural assets, its profile has been in the shade since the decline of mandolin ensembles in the 1930s. “At one point I think there were seven different mandolin orchestras in Milwaukee,” says MMO member Fred Pike. He admits that his orchestra’s survival had less to do with any grand design than with luck of the draw—it included members who combined love of the music with a stubborn refusal to bow to passing trends. “There were people who were in the orchestra for over 40 years,” Pike continues. Currently, MMO numbers musicians who are pushing a quarter-century in the ranks. 

Although associated during the past 75 years or more with American folk music of Southern origin such as bluegrass and country, the mandolin was once a familiar instrument in cities throughout the U.S., its popularity spurred by waves of European immigrants in the late 19th century. While most any melody can be transposed for the instrument, a distinct repertoire grew up around mandolin orchestras at the turn of the previous century. MMO’s resident archivist Paul Ruppa has gone great lengths to preserve and document that music.

However, by the time MMO reached its centennial, the orchestra decided to balance heritage with innovation. Building on the move toward a broader musical inventory, Izquierdo, co-director since 2013, was determined to reach for “a richer repertoire. I want to grow it so that younger players and more people will become interested in the mandolin. I don’t want an orchestra frozen in time, with music like relics in a museum.” 

To that end, Izquierdo has concentrated on bringing arrangements of Bach and Mozart into MMO concerts but without losing touch with the orchestra’s roots. For MMO’s September concert, the focus will be on mandolin music from a century ago. But in October, MMO will tackle Vivaldi’s Four Seasons featuring a guest appearance by acclaimed Italian mandolinist Carlo Aonzo.

According to Pike, there has been “a little bit of a renaissance for mandolin orchestras around the country. In the last few years, three or four new ones have formed in other cities. We are developing virtuoso mandolin players beyond bluegrass, which has had an impact on appreciation for the instrument.”

The Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra will perform on Saturday, Sept. 24 at 1 p.m. in the Lynden Sculpture Garden, 2145 W. Brown Deer Road; and on Sunday, Oct. 30 at 4 p.m. at the Peck School of the Arts Recital Hall on the UW-Milwaukee campus.

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