An Intrepid Group Plays the Mandolin

The New York Mandolin Orchestra (NYMO), now in its 94th year, and said to be the prehistoric known always performing Mandolin Orchestra in the country, has a long and well-revered reputation that is being maintained by its newest concertmaster, Dan Barrett, a cellist, who also plays mandolin and is a composer, arranger, conductor and—at his most impassioned—a political philosopher.

The relationship between the mandolin orchestra and social activism is nothing new for a group whose founder Samuel Firstman, a poor balalaika-playing immigrant from Russia, named the group the New York Freiheit [Freedom] Mandolin Orchestra, and which has, over the years, absorbed members from other immigrant and working class-related mandolin orchestras that also emerged in the 1920s.

Though he has been with NYMO for only two years when it had only a handful of performers, Barrett can now count on 15–25 showing up for rehearsals—sometimes even 50—a distribution that includes first and second mandolin, mandola, guitar, mandocello, bass, concertina, flute, recorder, clarinet, bassoon. They play chamber music, folk songs, jazz, bluegrass. Perhaps a Dan Barrett composition?

The long-haired musician pauses, then proffers the fact that he is composing something in “an early Wagnerian idiom” and a piece he’s calling “The Zombie Staatsoper” for another ensemble, a group he has recently helped revive and that features a number of electrified instruments. Being the conductor for NYMO is not a full-time position but it is one the maestro undertakes with full heart.

Barrett, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, most particularly honors the folk and workingman history of mandolin playing, “a dialectic of formal and informal,” though he points out that the instrument has also figured in music hardly associated with people’s art—a list that includes Beethoven, Hummel, Mozart (listen again to the “Serenade” in Don Giovanni), Verdi, Mahler, Percy Granger. Convenient to carry, and very popular, the mandolin, especially in its earliest manifestations, became an instrument of choice for wandering players, many of whom, such as East European Jews, could earn a living then only by an itinerant musical life. For Barrett, the connection between instrument and culture defines the “aesthetic philosophy . . . a didactic power” that guides his hand at NYMO.

The idea of public service is important to him, and he is pleased that NYMO plays in hospitals and AIDS hospice centers. He’s also thinking about performances in prisons. Key to the mission of the group, he says, is the kind of inspiration provided by Paul Robeson’s “Meadowlands.” Songs of solidarity easily find their way into the repertoire, just as part of an NYMO performance is telling audiences about the history of the mandolin and relating compositions for this instrument to the political climate—in the case of Robeson, for example, talking about the 1950s and racism, music and struggle.

Of course, Barrett has to make a living and that he does as a cello teacher and as a performer and arranger, working for, among others, PBS, NPR, American Ballet Theater, Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the City Opera. He cites Ruth Manning, quite on in years now, as one of the most significant influences in his life – “no one,” he emphatically states, “could play Brahms and Bach the way she did, no one.” He mentions her proficiency at the piano almost as secondary to her “philosophy,” her having “the pulse of the people.”

Other mentors include a teacher “educated in Moscow” who gave lessons in composition and theory, and also Barrett’s parents, his psychotherapist father who sings and his poet mother who teaches high school. It seems only fitting that the NYMO rehearses on a work day, Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., and does so at the High School for Health Professions and Human Services (345 E. 15th Street).