Excerpts from The Oregonian, April 2, 2011, by: Rick Bella: HILLSBORO -- Two dozen musicians sit in semicircle rows on the hardwood stage, fine-tuning their instruments and organizing the sheet music on the stands before them. At the center, a compact, energetic man thumbs through the master score, his lips pursed, a conductor's baton sticking out of his back pocket like an antenna.
"OK, we're going to start with the Vivaldi," says conductor Brian Oberlin, grabbing both the baton and the musicians' attention. "Ready?"
Then, with one stroke of Oberlin's right hand, 17 mandolins, three mandolas, two mandocellos and two string basses awaken, filling the Glenn & Viola Walters Cultural Arts Center with a haunting collective tinkle something like musical rain.
Another rehearsal of the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra is beginning.
One hundred years ago, all the country's major cities had mandolin orchestras. Mandolin-makers, led by Gibson, cleverly promoted the orchestras to help sell their instruments, especially the mandolas they developed to match the voices of violas in conventional orchestras and the mandocellos to play the parts written for cello. They even produced a few mandobasses, which look like mandolins on growth hormones.
But two world wars, Les Paul and Elvis Presley later, the guitar supplanted the mandolin in popularity and the old orchestras all but faded out. The Portland Mandophonic Orchestra had a 14-year run during the nationwide revival in folk music. But the Mandophonic died a quiet death by 2001.
Enter Oberlin and his wife, Elizabeth.
Over the past few years, Brian Oberlin, 35, has emerged as one of the best mandolinists in the country, equally adept at classical, folk, country, jazz, bluegrass, Italian traditional and edgy fusions. By 2009, he was teaming up with true virtuosi to play in various concert combos that drew raves -- that is, besides leading the annual River of the West Mandolin Camp, teaching classes and playing a full slate of gigs.
Then, one day, he and his wife heard a recording of a mandolin orchestra.
"I said, 'That's really amazing -- I didn't even realize there were mandolin orchestras,'" says Elizabeth Oberlin, 42, a practicing attorney. "Then, I asked Brian, 'Well, would you like to have a mandolin orchestra? I think I can get you one.'"
True to her word, Elizabeth Oberlin put her organizational skills to work. After much legal give-and-take, she found a home for the orchestra at Hillsboro's cultural arts center, which occupies a beautifully repurposed church building with stone walls and a soaring, Gothic-arch ceiling.
Brian Oberlin then set about recruiting orchestra members from among his friends and more promising students. News of the orchestra's conception soon spread by word of mouth and small cadre of former Portland Mandophonic veterans joined.
In January 2010, the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra was officially launched. Just four months later, the Orchestra debuted with a concert program that spanned Mozart, John Philip Sousa, Henry Mancini and Claude Debussy.
Brian Oberlin is confident in tackling a wide variety of music because the orchestra has such strong and diverse members.
During concerts, Oberlin often puts down his baton and solos with the orchestra, performs duets with visiting artists or plays in a constantly changing lineup of smaller ensembles. The ensembles invariably include pieces performed by bass+mandolin, the total-engagement partnership he enjoys with bassist Josh Feinberg, orchestra member and musical soulmate.
The Oberlins have big plans for the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra. Of course, they want to keep on improving, stretching the orchestra's musical palette. Elizabeth Oberlin says she wants the orchestra to grow into a fixture that continues to enrich, entertain and amaze. Meanwhile, Brian Oberlin has his immediate sights on improving the orchestra's performance.
"OK," he says, waving his arms to bring the rehearsal to a halt. "Let's not hurry the Vivaldi. I think we played it too fast last time."
Then, drawing up the baton as if cocking a pistol, he looks out over the assemblage of musicians and instruments.
"Are you ready?"