The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra in Concert at the First Congregational Church, South Hadley, MA, March 4, 2017


11054262_472181252930113_453625999577614312_oPhoto credit:  Sue Kramer

The Springfield Mandolin orchestra will have its first public performance of 2017 with a program scheduled for March 4, 2017 at 7 p.m. at the First Congregation Church in South Hadley, Massachusetts.  The program will feature Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, orchestral variations of traditional Irish melodies, and several original compositions – the first completed performance of “Strinennia,” composed by Michael Mayerfield Bell, “Rags, Riffs, and Reveries,” by Greek-born composer Victor Kioulaphides, and two pieces by local multi-instrumentalist Jim Armenti.

The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is a 501(c)3 Nonprofit dedicated to providing educational performances and events throughout the Metro Springfield area.


“Rags, Riffs, and Reveries,” and the music of Jim Armenti

Barbara and Joe Blumenthal commissioned Victor Kioulaphides to compose a piece of music to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Barbara’s instrument, a 1916 Gibson A-Junior mandolin.  The piece is arranged for mandolins, guitar, and bass.  According to Barbara, “We wanted a multi-movement piece evoking popular American music being played around the time my mandolin was built.  So, the 5-movement piece includes a fox- trot, a stomp, and a cakewalk.  Two interlude waltz movements are written just for mandolin and bass.”

Barbara became acquainted with Kioulaphides while attending Carlo Aonzo’s Mandolin Workshop in Manhattan, which they have attended during the past ten years.  Kioulaphides is a professional bass player based in New York City, and he also teaches, arranges and composes music. “Rags, Riffs and Reveries” was originally scheduled to be premiered in a concert last December, but the concert was cancelled on account of a snow storm.  The piece will now have its first public performance at the March 4 concert with the Springfield Mandolin Orchestra, and they will be joined by Jim Armenti and Sue Burkhart in performing this original piece.

Jim Armenti, who composed two pieces that will also be performed that evening, has a B.A. in music from the University of Massachusetts.  He has played in a variety of bands in the Pioneer Valley during the past 30 years, including the Yankee Rhythm Band, Klezamir, Gutterbirds, Donna Lee, and the Lonesome Brothers.  Jim plays and teaches a variety of musical styles, including rock, country, jazz, folk, and klezmer.


Strinennia refers to the Balkan festival held on March 9 of each year to celebrate the springtime return of the birds.  Michael Mayerfield Bell, an environmental sociologist and musician/composer, composed the classical suite “Strinennia” in 2002.  Originally in two movements, the suite has been performed numerous times over the past 15 years, according to Josh Bell, Michael’s brother.  The suite will be performed with the third movement in public for the first time at the March 4 concert with the Springfield Mandolin Orchestra.

Josh described how Michael, in composing the third movement, “has crafted voices of birds in the background,” creating “special effects (that) imitate a variety of bird calls.” “(It’s) remarkable how Michael envisions (the) voice of mandolin, and the subtle distinctions of the different tonal voices in regards to the power of music,” Josh said in praise of his brother.

“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and some Irish melodies

“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (or Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is perhaps the most familiar of Mozart’s compositions.   Written in 1787, it was not published until 1827, thirty-six years after Mozart’s death, even though  Mozart’s widow sold this work, with other compositions, to a publisher in 1799. This work is believed to have been written on commission, as were most of Mozart’s serenades. There is no known record of its first performance.

To usher in the Saint Patrick’s Day season, the orchestra will be performing orchestral arrangements of Irish melodies.  “Molly on the Shore” is an adaptation of a folk song by Australian-born modernist classical composer Percy Grainger, who is more renown for his folk song adaptations than his original compositions.  “Rocky Road to Dublin,” a slip jig that has been performed by artists ranging from Makem and Clancy to the Dropkick Murphys, is an ensemble arrangement by Jim Dalton, a faculty member of the Boston Conservatory of Music.  Although not a traditional Irish melody by any stretch of the imagination, “Moon Dance” was composed by Northern Ireland-born Van Morrison.

Tickets for the concert can be ordered in advance at  Advance price is $12, door price is $15.


Interview with Barbara Blumenthal via email 1/29/17

Interview with Josh Bell via phone 2/2/17

Hildesheimer, Wolfgang (1991) Mozart. Translated by Marion Faber. MacmillanISBN 0-374-52298-7.

Holoman, D. Kern (1992) Evenings with the orchestra: a Norton companion for concertgoersW. W. Norton & CompanyISBN 0-393-02936-0.


The Vega Instrument Company – Creators of the Cylinder-back Mandolin 

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The Vega Instrument Company was established in Boston in 1881 by brothers Julius and Carl Nelson, with John Pahn and John Swenson. They previously worked for guitar maker Pehr Anderberg, who made guitars for local instrument companies such as John C. Haynes. The Nelsons bought out the other associates at Anderberg, establishing Vega as a cooperative. The company primarily made guitars and mandolins, the latter of the Neapolitan bowl-back variety.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Vega went on a merger roll, buying A.C. Fairbanks Banjos in 1904, and Thompson and Odell in 1905. They continued to produce banjos under the name A.C. Fairbanks by Vega, then as Vega. Vega also ventured into brass instruments and purchased Standard Band Instrument Company in 1909.

In 1913, Vega took a creative turn in the production of mandolins. It introduced a “compromise” between the bowl-back and the Gibson-introduced flat-backs – the cylinder-back mandolin. The cylinder also applied to the other mandolin family instruments, and there was a limited number of cylinder-backed guitars produced. David L. Day, chief acoustical designer with Anderberg turned general manager at Vega, developed the cylinder and had it patented in 1913. The cylinder was found to increase the internal volume of the instrument. After the decline of mandolin production in the 1920’s, Vega focused on producing high-quality arch top guitars in the 1930’s.

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By the 1940’s and 1950’s, the overall quality of Vega instruments declined. It’s most notable instrument at the time was the long-necked banjo, which Pete Seeger played, as we as other musicians of the 1960’s folk revival. C.F. Martin purchased Vega in the 1970’s to capitalize on the popularity of its banjos. Martin licensed the Vega name to various American and international instrument makers, until Deering Banjos bought up the Vega name in 1989. To this day, Deering produces a line of Vega banjos.

The Vega name continued to appear on mandolins up to the 1980’s, until Deering Banjos acquired it. The mandolins were mostly low-end instruments made in Japan. One such instrument that is currently listed on is a metallic-looking Gray burst A-style mandolin with an asking price of $145.  There are, however, many vintage Vega mandolins listed. The instruments  include at least four banjolins, a mandolin and lute mandolin with cylinder backs, and vintage bowl and flat backs. The cylinder backs have asking prices in the early $1,000’s. It is not known if any other instrument maker has made, or attempted to make, an instrument with this unique design feature since Vega discontinued them in 1925.


Ayars, Christine Merrick. “Contributions to the Art of Music in America by the Music Industries of Boston, 1640 to 1936.” H.W. Wilson, 1937.

Thompson and Odell, Publisher and Instrument Manufacturers 

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Ira H. Odell started up a music publishing  company and music store, in partnership with Charles W. Thompson, sometime between 1872 and 1874 (different accounts vary), in Boston, Massachusetts. Ira’s son, future mandolin pioneer Herbert Forrest Odell, was an infant around the time of the business’ establishment. Thompson and Odell were originally in partnership with another man by the name of Woods, and their business was located at 121 Court Street. By the time they moved their business to 578 Washington Street, Woods had departed. They published tutorials and sheet music for piano, fretted instruments, brass band and orchestra.

Thompson and Odell began manufacturing instruments in 1888, beginning with mandolins and guitars, later adding banjos.  The Artist was the brand name of the fretted instruments. Their mandolins were the Neapolitan styled bowl back, later given the demeaning name of “tater bug” after the Gibson flat backs were introduced. The company was also the “ghost manufacturer” of J.F. Luscomb banjos. Charles Stromberg, a Swedish immigrant, was employed at Thompson and Odell and, a year after Thompson and Odell’s dissolution, started up his own line of banjos.

Thompson and Odell was incorporated in 1891, but a year later Odell left the business. The company gradually ceased publication, and around or prior to 1900 Carl Fischer bought up their catalog of publications. Thompson died in 1903, and about two years later the company filed for bankruptcy. Vega bought up the fretted instruments arm of the company in 1905 and carried on the Artist brand of instruments. That very year, H.F. Odell started his own music publishing company and his own trade journal, Crescendo, also bought up by Vega after his death. 

Ayars, Christine Merrick. “Contributions to the Art of Music in America by the Music Industries of Boston, 1640 to 1936.” H.W. Wilson, 1937.

​“All the Rage: Mandolin Orchestra Music from 1897-1924,” The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble

What music did mandolin ensembles of more than a century ago perform? Whatever was popular at the time; waltzes, fox trots, mazurkas, marches, rag, classical, folk. 
The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble took a time trip to the golden era of mandolin orchestras with a sampling of music unfamiliar to most modern listeners by composers all but forgotten to this day. The title song of this album was composed by Charles Brunover (1877-1948), a Wisconsin-born mandolinist, guitarist, teacher, and composer.(1)  It is a march with the possible connotation of it being a football fight song. 

A waltz bearing the name of the ensemble that started the stringed instrument craze, “Estudiantina,” was credited to Emile Waldteufel (1835-1912), a French-born classical composer of Jewish Alsacian heritage. (2)  It was actually composed by Paul Lacome, but arranged by Waldteufel for orchestra. 

The only female composer represented on this album is Kate Dolby, whose birth date is unknown but died in 1944.  She had only one song to her credit, a galop called “The Flying Wedge,” which was originally composed for banjo in 1917.(3)

H.F. Odell*, who was profiled here previously, composed the track “Laughing Eyes,” and arranged two other tracks for mandolin ensemble; “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice,” composed by Camille Saint-Seans (1835-1921) and “Gallantry,” by Albert W. Ketelbey (1875-1959), an English-born composer of light orchestral music who also worked in vaudeville. (4)

These are just six of the notable tracks off this album, released in 1998. Paul Martin Zonn was the conductor for this recording. The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble released six albums between between 1995 and 2006, then disbanded in 2009 when its most notable player, Butch Baldassari, succumbed to brain cancer.
*In correction to the previous article, H.F. Odell was Herbert Forrest Odell, not Henry Forrest Odell.  The article also misidentified Odell as the composer of the Saint-Seans and Ketelbey compositions when he arranged them for mandolin orchestra. 


(2) Griffiths, Paul. The Penguin Companion to Classical Music. Penguin UK, 2004


(4) McKanna, Tom. “Ketelby, Albert William. “ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edition).

The Pizzitola Strummers; Keeping the Mandolin (and other fretted instruments) alive in the jazz era

​A November 1941 article in Etude magazine by George C. Krick (“The Future of Fretted Instruments”) declared that interest in the mandolin, banjo, and guitar was alive and well despite the popular belief that those instruments were “dead” and “on their way out.” Krick cited the many urban areas that had instructors of fretted instruments. These instructors included Albert Bellson, Chester W. Gould, and A.E. Patton. He also cited a Holyoke, MA-based teacher and musician, Joseph Pizzitola, who he praised as directing “one of the best mandolin orchestras we have been privileged to hear, and he deserves great credit for keeping the mandolin before the public.”(1)

For the greater part of the 20th century, Pizzitola ran his own music school on the second floor of 81 Suffolk Street in Holyoke, which was above the former Victory Theater. Pizzitola taught mandolin, banjo, guitar, and accordion. He employed other instructors, who included luthier Frank Lucchesi, accordionist Marian Kelly, and bandleader Bob Ezold. Pizzitola was a licensed agent/instructor for Gibson, and he served as president (years unspecified) of the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists, and Guitarists (AGBMG). 

Pizzitola formed a professional ensemble of his advanced students and named them the Pizzitola Strummers. The Strummers played concerts in the Pioneer Valley and beyond, including town halls and Masonic lodges. They appeared on Boston’s WBZ radio as far back as 1927 and 1928. Anywhere in the country where the radio signal could be picked up, the Pizzitola Strummers could be heard, as newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press and Reading (PA) Times listed long-distance radio station programming. The Strummers especially played the AGBMG conferences. For two years in a row (1930-31), the banjo-heavy ensemble won first prize for Best Banjo Group. (2)

By the 1940’s, the accordion was incorporated into the ensemble, therefore, they were renamed the Pizzitola Plectro-Accordion Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra continued to perform throughout the Valley and upstate New York.  They made their television debut in 1957 on the defunct Springfield Channel 55 with their own bi-weekly program. (3)  Pizzitola’s reputation as an accordion instructor superseded that as a stringed instrument instructor, as more accordions joined the orchestra.  Interest inPizz stringed instruments resumed in the 1960’s, and Bob Ezold was one of the instructors to go to for guitar, banjo, and mandolin.  New Orleans-based musician Spider Murphy, who grew up in Holyoke and later graduated from the Berklee School of Music, studied all three instruments under Pizzitola and Ezold, beginning in 1963 when he was six years old.  Spider’s father and three of his aunts took lessons with Pizzitola 40 years earlier. (4)

The Pizzitola Music Studio became incorporated in 1963, and it opened studios in Springfield and Northampton. The incorporated status was dissolved in 1978, sometime after Pizzitola’s death. Ezold, after Pizzitola’s death, kept the strummer tradition going by forming the Valley Strummers. The Strummers are still performing to this day under the direction of Ezold’s son, Bob Jr., and regularly perform at the Holyoke Senior Center. 

(1) Krick, George C. “The Future of Fretted Instruments.” Etude, November 1941.


(3) Berkshire Eagle Tribune, January 30, 1957.


A Sampling of Christmas Mandolin Music 

​In the search for recordings of instrumental Christmas music with mandolin, one has to discern what is unique about the plethora of renditions of the most familiar, over-played traditional carols. Also, depending on one’s preference, what makes one rendition better than the other. 

Two recordings of mandolin and guitar duos feature most of the same repertoire but have distinctive styles. One, “Italian Christmas” by the Natale Italian Mandolin Duo, released in 2014, is an album of 18 songs, only four the tracks Italian, the rest the usual Christmas fare (Deck the Halls, Good King Wenceslaus, et al.)  Nevertheless, it is good, crisp and simply arranged, in the Neapolitan mandolin playing style. Another, “A Mandolin Christmas” by Karen Mal (mandolin) and Will Taylor (guitar), encompasses contemporary folk and acoustic with some very light jazz guitar. For solo mandolin, and no other instrumentation, “A Mandolin for Christmas” by Evan J. Marshall, all the traditional Christmas repertoire played in the Neapolitan mandolin style.

A country acoustic offering is “Evergreen; Mandolin Music for Christmas” by Butch Baldassari. The traditional Christmas repertoire, once again, but with acoustic guitar, dobro, and fiddle. Baldassari has previously performed and recorded with the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, who released their own Christmas album, “Gifts,” in 1996.

An Italian Renaissance offering is “Mandolins for Christmas” by Ugo Orlandi, Alessandro Bono, and Quintetto A Plettro, et al. The album features compositions of minor Italian composers from the 17th to 20th century, as well as non-seasonal music.  The album also features “Planxty O’Carolan; Irish Suite for Flute, Percussion and Mandolin Orchestra.” The suite is in seven movements, and in spite of the title, not all of it is by O’Carolan (the movements include adaptations of Irish Washerwoman Jig and Down by the Sally Gardens).  The final track is a cleverly arranged medley of the familiar holiday favorites, including “Silent Night” and “White Christmas.” (1)

These and other albums can be found on Spotify (if you type in Christmas mandolin in the search engine) and YouTube. 

Merry Christmas, and happy listening. 
(1) David Vernier,