A mandolin for all seasons
NEW YORK — It's 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon and Lucky Checkley is happy. He should be tired, as he just finished his 10th public performance with the New York Mandolin Orchestra, but Mr. Checkley is a man who never stops moving.
Now, after the theater empties out, Checkley scurries about, putting things away. He pushes a small, upright piano offstage as he describes hearing the mandolin as a child in his native Trinidad.
Across the room, Judith Fallat smiles at her father, George. They have been coming to 345 East 15th St. to hone their mandolin skills for years.
Every week, she leaves her suburban law office, picks up her father, and makes the one-hour drive into the city. For a while, he used to just sit in the audience and listen to his daughter play. But it didn't take much persuasion from orchestra members to get him to transfer his guitar skills to the mandolin.
At this concert in early June, the orchestra's 80th anniversary performance, these musicians are joined by, among others, a plumber from the Bronx, a newspaper editor from Midtown, and college students from Washington Square.
The ensemble is composed of 30 players whose love of the mandolin - often called "the poor man's violin" - reminds them of their heritage.
Like similar orchestras in Seattle, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, the New York Mandolin Orchestra is devoted to preserving an instrument that was a fixture of urban working-class neighborhoods during the immigration wave of the early 1900s.
"The mandolin has a fundamental relationship to America," says Dan Barrett, conductor of the New York group. "It is this infusion of cultures, people, immigrants, and ideas that keeps America from dying, and the mandolin is very reflective of that fact."
Contemporary performers, especially those who play bluegrass, are also rediscovering the mandolin.
A century ago in New York, small, community-based mandolin orchestras popped up all over the city. These included the Workmen's Circle Mandolin Orchestra, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Orchestra, and the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order Orchestra. These groups began to consolidate, eventually evolving into the New York Mandolin Orchestra in 1924.
"There is a very strong community base surrounding the mandolin," says Irene Roberts, the orchestra's second chair. Ms. Roberts started playing the mandolin 70 years ago, at the age of 5.
"It was the Depression," she recalls, "My mother wanted me to have some culture, and mandolin lessons were the cheapest thing around - only 25 cents."
Miriam Abrams, a longtime orchestra member, had a similar experience. At the behest of her parents, she began taking lessons with other children in the Bronx. "The mandolin was inexpensive enough that working-class people, people who grew up in my neighborhood and who worked in local factories, could afford it," she says.
Back then, the mandolin could be heard at dinner tables or on street corners after a long day in textile mills or at construction sites. The music often resembled the Italian tarantella, but the melodies were accompanied by the singing of stories, ballads, and fables. With each chord, a piece of heritage was carried over to the New World.
"People loved to sing and dance at night," says Ms. Abrams, who remembers many a Friday evening spent gathered in someone's tiny living room where women and children danced as the men played their instruments. The songs were a unique hybrid: popular music of the time, such as Duke Ellington jazz hits, were played alongside traditional folk music from Ukraine.
"We also learned new songs from other immigrants in the area. We had the Yiddish dance music, but then someone learned an Italian love song, even a Spanish tango once," Abrams says.
Perhaps it's not surprising the instrument has such a "melting pot" history. It first appeared in 15th-century Naples, Italy, as an adaptation of the lute. But it is similar to various string instruments across the globe, such as the traditional Russian balalaika or the popular dambura of the Arab world.
"The mandolin has roots in almost every culture. There is the roundback mandolin from Japan, mandolin versions from Italy and North Africa," explains Mr. Checkley, the orchestra's general manager. He remembers first hearing the mandolin in his native Trinidad, where it was played with steel drum bands. Now, he plays the mandola, a deeper-sounding bass form of the mandolin.
The instrument can still be heard in popular music today.
"Led Zeppelin used mandolins often - such as in the song 'Hangman' - and so did the Eagles," says Jeff Cowherd, a mandolin dealer in Walton, Ky.
More recently, he observes, it has been utilized by R.E.M. and the contemporary folk group Nickel Creek. But it's the resurgence of bluegrass - popularized by Alison Krauss and the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" gang - that has raised the profile of the instrument, as well as players such as Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush.
"The mandolin has not been forgotten and it is still beloved for its unique and haunting sound," says Mr. Cowherd.
On that particular Sunday, that sound could be heard echoing among the rafters of a large auditorium at the High School for Health Professionals and Human Services, where the orchestra performs. The audience listens, quiet and appreciative, but during intermission, the mandolin players already have other things on their minds.
"Did Smokey Robinson's 'My Girl' sound OK on the mandolin?" Checkley wonders. Roberts ponders what the lineup will be for the next concert: Vivaldi or a piece of more traditional Romanian folk music. Judith Fallat and her father are just happy to have the chance to play.