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North Hills Monthly

Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra Attracts Musicians of All Kinds

Dec 01, 2014 10:30AM ● By Jill Cueni Cohen
By day, Jason Mohr, 41, of Shaler Township, teaches European history and economics to North Allegheny Senior High School students. But at night, he becomes a dedicated mandolin musician. “I play from 10 p.m. until midnight; it’s a relaxing end to my day,” he said.

Mohr’s musical hobby borders on an obsession that he shares with a growing number of people in cities across the United States. With its home base at St. John’s Lutheran Church of Highland on Cumberland Road, the Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra has attracted an eclectic group of approximately 35 local musicians who come from all walks of life. “We’re a very enthusiastic community orchestra,” said Mohr. “Being part of the group is as much fun as playing the instrument itself.”

Currently gearing up to perform its annual holiday concert, the Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra features performers who are just as unique as the instruments they play. High school kids, college students, working and retired adults, as well as visiting guest virtuosos, play a variety of instruments including the mandolin, mandola, mandocello, mando-bass, acoustic guitar, woodwind and percussion. The orchestra also has its own vocalist, Gary Burdick.

Master folk musician and teacher Charley Rappaport has been conducting the orchestra, and performing in front of it, for eight years. He explains that in the 1900s, mandolins were more popular than guitars, and that for the past 25 years, they’ve been making a comeback. “Tens of thousands of mandolins were sold at that time, but statistics show that more are sold now than ever before,” he said, adding that the Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra was originally formed in 1919 and is one of the oldest groups in the country.

The orchestra took a hiatus during war times and got back together in 2002. Now they perform seasonal concerts annually at St. John’s, the Byham Theater, historic Mifflin Avenue Church, and International Village, which draws an audience of more than 20,000 people to McKeesport each summer. For the past two years, they’ve been invited to appear at the McCandless Community Day celebration.

Small and convenient to carry, the mandolin is suited for every type of music, including rock, Celtic, jazz, ethnic, Americana, bluegrass, and old-time country. “It’s absorbing, and you can play really nice stuff,” said Rappaport. “In that regard, it soothes you, because it stimulates you at the same time.” He adds that there’s no end to the music that’s available, including songs on countless free websites.

The group welcomes newcomers and invites anyone who’s interested to check out one of their practice sessions, which take place every week from 7 to 9:30 p.m. “All of the mandolins are different, and they all have a unique sound,” explained Pittsburgh Mandolin Society President Richard Stuempges. “During every concert, Charley has the different instruments play a few notes so that the audience can hear the difference.”

Stuempges, 71, of Bellevue, plays the rare mando-bass. “They made about 200, and there are far fewer around now,” he said of the instrument that looks like a stand-up, overgrown mandolin. “My grandfather left it to me years ago, and after I retired as a Northgate elementary principal about seven years ago, I started to play. I’ve been having fun ever since.

 “We have one young girl who started playing with us when she was 11, and she will be 16 in January,” Stuempges added, of the instruments that attract all ages. “She composes serious music, and we premiered one of her pieces that she arranged and conducted herself.

“Come out and see us,” he continued. “We put a lot of time and effort into practicing, and we love to perform.” 

Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra Concert
Sunday, Dec. 21, 3 p.m.
St. John’s Lutheran Church of Highland
311 Cumberland Road
Pittsburgh, PA 15237
$7 general admission, $5 seniors, children under 14 free