Quartet Finds Diversity on the Road to Mandolin : Music: The group, which will play Bach, Haydn and Debussy in Laguna Niguel, ‘tricks’ instruments into playing works you wouldn’t expect of them.

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Ready for a mandolin group that plays Bach, Handel, Shostakovich and music by other classical composers?

“It’s pretty ridiculous,” laughed Mike Marshall, founder of the Modern Mandolin Quartet, in a phone interview from his home in Oakland.

But he quickly turned serious. “Pretentious as it is to say, we’re trying to do (for the mandolin) what Segovia did for the guitar,” he said. “We’re taking these instruments and broadening the repertoire.”


His group, modeled upon a string quartet, will play on Saturday at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel. Members include Marshall and Dana Rath, mandolins; Paul Binkley, mandola; and John Imholz, mandocello.

“When we started out, we would always pick music that was really quick and full of eight notes,” Marshall said.

“More recently, we surprised ourselves with what will work. We’re now doing Ravel’s ‘Mother Goose Suite’--the whole thing--just because we’ve developed enough techniques, sort of tricking the instrument into doing what we would like it to do.”

Marshall, 33, a native of Florida, began studying bluegrass guitar as a teen-ager and segued into the mandolin because it also is a central to bluegrass music. Frustrated by the limited repertory, he began to branch out and arrange works that weren’t written for the instrument.

“The (classical) mandolin literature is just pretty lightweight,” he said. “You have a few Vivaldi concertos and a couple of Beethoven pieces, which are nice. Then there’s all this turn-of-the-century real light classical and Italian light music.”

In 1984, he experimented with recording a mandolin quartet version of Ravel’s String Quartet in F, handling all the parts himself via taped overdubs.


Pleased with the results and encouraged by meeting Rath, he launched the quartet a year later.

“We wanted to play string quartet music right off the page, and we didn’t have to change anything,” he said.

“I also was really interested in (transcribing) contemporary music--by Ravel, Bartok, Shostakovich, Stravinsky. Because it was so rhythmic, I felt it adapted well to the percussive aspect of the mandolin.”

Marshall found it easy to adapt string-quartet literature because the instrument he had was more flexible than the instrument associated with popular Italian music. In the early 1920s, the guitar-making Gibson company reated a flat-back mandolin in contrast to the traditional Italian round-back model. The Gibson mandolin also has a longer neck, which extends the range, and F holes like those on a violin instead of the round hole of the Italian models.

“These instruments are much more suited to a heavier hand and more pungent sounds,” Marshall said. “The round-backs have mostly a harmonic, high-end kind of sound. Frankly, I’ve never been able to hold the thing. It’s always getting away from me.”

The flat-back models also can support heavy-gauge bronze strings. “You can’t use those kinds of strings on a round-back,” Marshall said. “They will cave it in.”

To distance themselves from any “serenading gondolier connotations,” Marshall’s group tried to avoid “too much use of tremolo.”


“We’re doing our darndest to avoid using it,” he said. “We’re developed some techniques whereby we really pluck the note and as it’s decaying, we sort of sneak the tremolo in, as opposed to turning it on immediately . . . like a sewing machine.

“We have our limits,” he added, “but therein lies the beauty. It’s the challenge of making the mandolin work.”

The Modern Mandolin Quartet will play works by Bach, Haydn, Debussy and other classical composers on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062 Forbes Road, Laguna Niguel. Tickets: $15. Information: (714) 364-5270.