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Music – Fretful Federation Mandolin Orchestra

A few years back Ian Harris, a trained classical musician, was busking in Bristol with his mandolin. “Not very successfully, actually” he remembers. An old couple approached him, invited him in for a cup of tea. “They were handing out parts in a mandolin orchestra, of the sort that used to be popular until the 30’s,” he says. Ian got involved, and when he moved to Brighton, he was presented with the repertoire of scores of a defunct company. He decided to set up his own orchestra.

“At first a few people joined, and gradually we expanded until now we have 25 or so members,” he says. “The orchestra is set up like a classical string orchestra: instead of violins we have mandolins, instead of violas, we have mandolas, instead of cellos we have mandocellos, instead of basses, mandobasses.” The sound is more ‘bright and shimmery’ than a violin orchestra: the group perform a varied repertoire from tangos, rumbas and ragtime to classical and contemporary works. “We get sent pieces by composers,” he says, “from all over the world. The Japanese, in particular, produce a lot of mandolin orchestra pieces.” The group practice on Tuesdays at 7.30 in St George’s Church in Kemptown. A small lottery grant means that anyone interested is welcome to turn up and will be lent an instrument to practice on. So who goes to mandolin orchestra concerts? “A real mixture, from classical fans to guitarists who are curious to see what sort of music we make.” I’m intrigued as to what Ian’s day job is. “I play music on stilts,” he says. He also is a handsaw expert. “I’ve just come back from a festival in China.” Sounds intriguing.


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Fret not: there’s a complete Mandolin Orchestra in town