Mano a Mandolin 

A celebration of somewhat obscure strings.

NO ITALIAN SERENADE WOULD BE complete without one, but the mandolin has otherwise been to classical music what Lillian Gish was to movies: a ubiquitous, wildly popular player long ago, fondly remembered and still occasionally featured after a presumed demise, but ultimately an entertainer spending many decades in eclipse.

Gish died in 1993, but the mandolin is still with us. If it isn't quite managing a full-fledged comeback, at least it is refusing to join, say, the ophicleide in musical oblivion.

In fact, it will make a fairly rare concert appearance January 7 at Pima College, in the hands of Richard Walz and in the company of pianist Mari Tomizuka.

The classical mandolin--as opposed to its slightly different bluegrass cousin--looks like a stunted lute. Smaller than a guitar, it has a pear-shaped body and usually four pairs of steel strings with a high, brilliant tone. The player strums the strings rapidly to produce the jittery, heaving-breast, non-stop tremolo effect that sets the mandolin sound apart from other instruments in the lute and guitar families.

These days, classical music mavens are likely to know the mandolin only through one piece written during its initial 18th-century heyday, a concerto by Vivaldi. Listeners with sharp ears will also remember the instrument from its cameos in a handful of unlikely, walloping orchestral works from the early 20th century: Mahler's Seventh Symphony, Respighi's Feste Romane, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

Yet the solo mandolin enjoyed a now-forgotten renaissance between about 1885 and 1920. During that time, mandolin virtuosos swarmed out of Italy, some of them alighting in America. They gave concerts, recruited students, and wrote hundreds of endearing but now nearly lost pieces for their instrument.

If you hear the mandolin today, it's usually in bluegrass or Neapolitan folk music. But a very few classical musicians are keeping the instrument's blue-blood traditions alive, making the odd recording and giving the occasional mandolin recital.

One keeper of the flame is Richard Walz, an American-born, French-based musician who learned the mandolin's fundamentals at the knee of an old-school Italian player. As his studies progressed, Walz encountered a great many mandolin transcriptions of violin pieces (the strings are tuned to the same pitches). So he took up the violin as well, and now he gives concerts on both instruments with pianist Mari Tomizuka.

Walz will have only a mandolin in his hands for the January 7 concert at the Pima Community College Center for the Arts. He'll share the stage with Tomizuka, who recently moved back to her home town of Tucson after more than a decade studying and performing in the Netherlands. (She's the daughter of Karyl Tomizuka, a longtime private piano teacher in town.)

In 1999, the pair recorded Mandolin Treasures from the Golden Era for a small label called Plucked String Disc. There won't be much overlap between that CD and the upcoming concert, but the disc promises two expert players who aren't afraid to indulge in the music's sometimes schmaltzy nature.

There's nothing wrong with schmaltz, as long as it isn't used merely for cheap effect; during the mandolin's golden age, schmaltz was integral to the music's character--romantic, sentimental, palpitating, more than a little showy.

Although the CD features mostly Italian music (including a very effective transcription of Leoncavallo's famous, sobbing aria "Vesti la giubba"), the recital will be more far-ranging. It includes an early set of variations by none other than Ludwig van Beethoven, the program's one big name. There's also a sonata by Vincent Neuling, a very obscure Viennese contemporary of Beethoven's, and a divertimento in a tonal but post-Romantic style by Hans Gal, who died as recently as 1987.

The concert's second half is all-Italian, dominated by a substantial work that also appears on the CD: the passionate Concerto No. 1 for Mandolin and Piano by Rafaelle Calace (1863-1934), who is apparently to the mandolin what Liszt was to the piano.

If Lillian Gish could cling to the silver screen long enough to outlive three generations of glamour pusses, surely Rafaelle Calace and his like deserve a hearing this weekend.

Mandolinist Richard Walz and Pianist Mari Tomizuka perform Sunday, January 7 at 3 p.m. at the Pima Community College Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets cost $10 general, $8 for seniors and students, and $5 for children under 12 at Hear's Music, Antigone Books and the PCC box office. For information, call 206-6988.

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