Playing music for others and with others
The first time Alexandrian Lynn Falk, 87, heard a mandolin orchestra’s tremolo at a concert, “It was like butterflies singing. It was so beautiful,” she said.
That was 40 years ago. She’s been playing a mandolin ever since with The Mandoleers, a Washington-area orchestra.
Her friend Kathleen Graham was moved as well when she attended a concert at the Smithsonian Institution. “It was like a little harpsichord — so beautiful,” Graham recalled.
She found a mandolin at an estate sale, took lessons in 1995, and today is the orchestra’s first chair mandolinist. After hearing her first concert, “There was no turning back,” said Graham, a resident of Mount Vernon, Virginia.
The Mandoleers, a Washington-area mandolin and guitar orchestra, was founded in 1923 by Herman von Bernewitz as the Takoma Mandoleers. He served as its conductor for the next 73 years.
A new conductor, Nicoletta Moss Miller, has just come aboard. She was an assistant conductor for the Greensboro, North Carolina, Symphony Orchestra and a guest conductor for the Washington-area Levine School of Music.
What’s a mandolin orchestra?
In a mandolin orchestra, the instruments are the mandolin, mandola, mandocello, classical guitar and double bass. Each musician has a specific seat and plays a part, like in a symphony orchestra.
The Mandoleers usually have around 20 musicians, but that number can vary.
The mandolin originated in Italy. Smaller than a guitar, it is similar to the lute and oud, an Arabic string instrument. The Chinese version is called a “pipa.”
A mandolin has eight strings and is tuned like a violin. Mandolin players use a pick to make sound. Performers Falk and Graham play vintage mandolins, made in the 1920s.
Their repertoire includes classical music by composers like Beethoven, Bach, Sammartini, Telemann and Brahms. They also play waltzes and rags, and pop tunes like the Beatles’ “When I’m 64” and “Hey Jude,” as well as a Russian folk tune titled “Bright Shines the Moon.”
During her career, Falk worked at the Voice of America and had jobs tutoring and in real estate. Graham was a budget officer for the federal government prior to her 2015 retirement.
Falk and Graham play in the orchestra “for the joy of making music with others and for others,” Graham said. Falk said she likes making new friends of all ages while learning to play a new instrument: “It’s never too late to learn.”
For forthcoming events and to explore playing in the orchestra, visit mandoleers.org.
Peter DiGiovanni believes that “music is a unique form of communication.” The retiree from Oakton, Virginia “communicates” by playing an accordion with the Washington Metropolitan Accordion Society (WMAS), a group founded in 2003. Today, the group’s 20 to 50 musicians range in age from their mid-20s to their 80s.
“We all love music,” said DiGiovanni, president and music director of the society. “An accordion just makes it sound better.”
DiGiovanni is especially fond of the accordion because it is so versatile. It can “simultaneously produce melody, harmony and rhythm in a huge variety of ways and is very expressive,” he explained.
“It sounds like no other instrument. This translates into a positive listening experience for our audiences.”
The instrument is known colloquially as “the squeezebox” because musicians squeeze the bellows in and draw them out.
WMAS meets once a month at Sleepy Hollow United Methodist Church in Falls Church, Virginia, for a “playalong,” or jam session. They also perform concerts when invited and always hold a December member concert.
It was “divine intervention” that got DiGiovanni into playing the accordion in retirement, he said. He worked for Mobil Oil for 32 years, retired in 2000 and joined the board of directors of a Mobil retirees’ club.
His first task was to organize a Christmas party and find some entertainment. DiGiovanni invited the Washington Balalaika Society, and he played piano.
“As a lark,” he took his father’s accordion along, which he had played by ear off and on as a teenager, and played some songs on it. Soon after the holiday party, he went to a WMAS gathering, joined, and is now president. DiGiovanni can play 1,500 songs by ear.
Most members of the WMAS are not professional musicians but play for fun and get together once a month. A few are paid to play at restaurants and Oktoberfest events.
The accordionists play “just about everything,” DiGiovanni said: American standards, rock and roll, light classical, Broadway, Cajun, Irish, ragtime, jazz, polkas and waltzes.
“We play for the occasion,” DiGiovanni said.
“I enjoy playing for others and with other musicians. It is very satisfying to take something that is part of me and share it with others.”
The club’s next guest artist concert, featuring Stas Venglevski, will be on September 25. Their next member concert will be at Oktoberfest on October 16. For more information, visit washingtonaccordions.org.