The wee and sprightly mandolin, cousin to the workhorse guitar much as the piccolo is cousin to the flute, has a migrant nature. Though the typical American sees one and immediately thinks of bluegrass, a mandolin is actually an instrument stoked by centuries-old traditions, the strains of which have worked their ways through the tiny lute's repertoire like vines. Put a dozen or so mandolins together, then, and you can't help but get a sound shot with history and myriad influences: Such is the case when the Denver Mandolin Orchestra, an amateur ensemble led by local virtuosos Charlie Provenza and Eli Kurasik, gets together, as players will Wednesday evening at Four Mile Park. The audience there will be treated to a lively mixture of Sousa marches, light classical adaptations, rags, folk tunes, original compositions and -- this should be first -- possibly even a little Arabic belly-dance music. Can they possibly have left anything out?
The idea of the mandolin orchestra is probably as old as the mandolin itself, but Denver's has existed, with lengthy hiatuses, since the late '70s. "I got the group back together last September as a way to feature Eli's playing," says Provenza, himself a member since 1979. "He's the last of the Mohicans in that style, and I thought it was a shame he's not heard more." An ensemble that swells in size from twelve to eighteen players and is divided like any orchestra into three sections -- first mandolins, second mandolins and guitars -- the troupe adheres loosely to an archetype that gained popularity in the U.S. in the early part of the century after hopping the ocean from Europe.
But in the present, it's less a scholarly endeavor than a way for Provenza, Kurasik and friends to have a good time -- all while noodling with influences and resurrecting a style of music not frequently heard by the public. And love's got everything to do with it, notes Provenza: "The mandolin orchestra has a unique sound that no other ensemble has -- if you love mandolins, you'll love twenty of them even more."