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Anchorage Mandolin Orchestra: A serenade of strings at the Anchorage Folk Festival

1.21.23 Anchorage Mando Orchestra.jpg
Rhonda McBride
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The Anchorage Mandolin Orchestra has performed at the Anchorage Folk Festival for almost a decade.

Usually, Bluegrass bands feature a single mandolin player. Sometimes two. But how about a chance to hear a whole bunch of mando players at once?

The Anchorage Mandolin Orchestra was one of the crowd pleasers at the Anchorage Folk Festival last Saturday night, with 17 musicians performing together at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium on University of Alaska Anchorage campus.

Their conductor, Armin Abdihodzich, says mandolin orchestras were in their heyday in the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, when a wave of immigrants brought their mandolins and their music with them.

“Many cities have had huge mandolin orchestras, still today,” Abdihodzich said.

Abdihodzich says most people don’t realize that mandolins and violins are in the same family.

“The only difference is they play with bows, versus, we play with picks,” he said. “Orchestra music fits in really well, because if it’s written for the string family, it transfers very well to violin orchestras.”

The Anchorage group formed in 2013, after Pam McCarl heard a mandolin orchestra at a music camp in Wasilla. For years, she held rehearsals in her home.

Today, the orchestra rehearses every other Sunday at the UAA Fine Arts Center from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. The group plays a series of Christmas concerts in December, mostly at senior centers and assisted living facilities.

“We like to give back to our community over the holidays,” McCarl said.

There’s also a spring concert that focuses on classical music.

Joan Unger is a longtime member of the group. She’s a lawyer by day, but in her spare time enjoys being surrounded by mandolins of every shape and size.

“There’s mandolins, mandocellos. We have a bass. We have a guitarist.” Unger says. “When it all comes together and sounds good, it sounds really good.”

Unger says it’s fun to play with other people, especially when they get together in a big group like the mandolin orchestra.

The Anchorage Folk Festival resume this Friday, with performances on thr main stage that run through Sunday evening. There are also nightly events featuring local groups at various venues that include: The Middle Way Café, Hearth Artisan Pizza, Organic Oasis, Writer’s Block Café, as well as Jitters and Sleepy Dog Coffee in Eagle River.

Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.