Modern Mandolin Quartet

By John Goodin

"Falls of the Ohio," "Corn Island," "Louisville," "Clark's Grant," "Derby City." Many names have been applied to Louisville and its region, but the members of the Modern Mandolin Quartet think of it as "Mando-Central." Since the summer of 1987, when the Louisville Mandolin Orchestra was formed, Louisville audiences have been able to hear the world's foremost players of classical mandolin. Much as it served as a magnet for bluegrass musicians in the early 1970s, today Louisville seems to regularly attract great mandolinists.

Early in June the Modern Mandolin Quartet discovered that a snafu in their tour schedule left them in Cincinnati on Sunday, June 19, with nothing to do. Rather than lie around the hotel pool they decided to avoid the Spinal Tap Syndrome by arranging a visit to Mando-Central. Mike Schroeder was called, the LMO was consulted, and the folks from Louisville Homefront Performances were enlisted to help present the MMQ in concert.

The last-minute promotion, combined with Father's Day events and tropical heat, resulted in a small but serious group of listeners. The MMQ responded with a no-holds-barred performance of challenging compositions and arrangements.

The oldest pieces on the program were arrangements of George Gershwin's three Preludes for piano. They were beautifully played with the kind of attention to detail, timbre and dynamics that are the hallmarks of the Quartet's several recordings on the Windham Hill label. Almost the entire program was taken from the MMQ's latest disc Pan-American Journeys, vol. 1, which features recent compositions by American (in the broad geographic sense) composers.

Tully Cathey's "Elements IV: Water" was the opening number. The group first performed this in Louisville last summer with the Louisville Orchestra (the group that plays violins, not mandolins) at the Louisville Zoo. This was followed by a series of pieces from the Caribbean, Cuba, Argentina and Brazil. Astor Piazzolla's "Four for Tango," composed for the Kronos String Quartet, was a highlight.

In general the pieces were harmonically and melodically challenging yet rhythmically familiar. The Quartet managed to use all the parts of their instruments to achieve percussive effects; tapping and scraping with funky precision.

Mike Marshall, Dana Rath, Paul Binkley and John Imholz have taken care to achieve a balanced quartet sound that is easily recognized. For their encore, however, the group chose to play a "Klezmer Medley" that featured Marshall on his vintage Gibson mandolin. Romping through several exciting tunes the piece settled into a vamp section where Marshall unleashed his amazing improvisational skills. As the piece roared to its conclusion the denizens of Mando-Central rose en masse to salute, once again, the finest mandolin quartet on the planet.