September – June 2001, New York City
In October 1999, I saw a listing somewhere for a concert by the New York Mandolin Orchestra. On a whim, I went, with my wife and two children. I’ve loved the mandolin since I was a kid and had been playing sporadically since I bought one while I was in the Oswalds. The concert was sort of cool, if rather sparsely attended (my family comprised about half of the audience in the Washington Irving High School auditorium).
The New York Mandolin Orchestra has been around since 1924 (it was originally named the New York Freiheit Mandolin Orchestra). In the Twenties, there was something of a mandolin orchestra craze. I think it’s safe to say the craze has subsided, but the NYMO persists to this day.
At that first show I attended, there were perhaps 20 mandolin, mandola, and mandocello players, They alternated ensemble pieces with solos and duets, but the ensemble stuff was what was coolest. Even though the playing was more than a little spotty (the orchestra is open to anyone who’s willing to come to rehearsals), the sound was really neat. I was without a project of my very own at the time, and was in the middle of listening to and writing more chamber music-ish sort of material. I was eager to try the mandolin orchestra as a way to bone up on my mandolin and reading skills. But as it happened, it was nearly two years before I finally got up the combination of nerve and free time to show up and join the group.
Once a week I’d trudge over to East 15th Street and rehearse. The conductor, a woman named Jennifer Ruffalo, and a few of the players were very good professional musicians. The other players were, well, enthusiastic. I was pretty new to reading music (I hadn’t read treble clef since I was 13), but I found the pace was manageable. There were a lot of little old ladies in the group. I sat between two women with hearing aids. All of the mandocello players reminded me of Walter Matthau.
Consulting some of my notes from back then, I see we did pieces by Scarlatti and Hummel, chamber pieces that had been adapted for mandolin orchestra. We also did an adaption of Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni, and an arrangement of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”
In addition to the mandolin family, there was a woman who played various flutes and recorders and, incredibly, a pair of smoking hot identical twin young women who both played bassoon.
We played 2 concerts I can recall, both in the same auditorium where we rehearsed. The group breaks in June for the summer, and I didn’t return in September.
1989 – present, New York City and Ulster County, NY
Mark Donato – vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica, songwriting, (sometimes drums on records)
Mark Lerner – bass, backing vocals, etc, off and on 1989 – present
Pete Erchick – bass from 1994-ish to 1996?
Stephen Lewis – electric guitar, 1989-1991
Dan Fassett – electric guitar, for a few months in 1991-1992
G. Doug Pierson – electric guitar from 1994-ish to to 2006-ish
Dave Wilkes – drums for a few months of 1990
Allison Horn – drums, 1990-1991
Seth Warnock – drums, 1991 – 2006-ish
Eric Parker – drums, 2008 – present
Diane Stockwell – violin, 1991? to 1994?
Rebecca Weiner Tompkins – violin, 1994
Rob Meador – mandolin from 1996-ish to 2006-ish
John Burdick and Dean Jones – (guitar and piano) working on our new record even as we speak
And various other guests on recordings, including Jim Barbaro (guitar), Al Houghton (guitar and organ), Mike Ralff and Scott McKuen (acoustic bass), Bob Hofnar and Jonathan Gregg (pedal steel), Robin Goldwasser (vocals), and Philippa Thompson (accordion and vocals).
I’ve played music with this Donato fellow for 25 years. There’s a strong temptation when writing these things, to pitch the music to you, dear reader. That is, to select the very best stuff and to order the post so as to take maximum advantage of your understandably short attention span, and leave you thinking, “Whoa, that band was great! Mark is cool!” Nowhere is this temptation stronger than in writing about Mark Donato, whose singular talents as a songwriter and singer have gone, in my opinion, criminally underappreciated, at least insofar as appreciation can be measured by album sales and crowds at gigs. (Though there have been plenty of both at times.)
But my job here (I guess I’m my own boss) is not to promote music. As a musician, I have to spend far too much time doing that anyway; my task here is more narrative in nature. So this will be a typical Every Band story: embarrassing videos, clip-art xeroxed flyers, wobbly demos, and faulty memories. Readers unfamiliar with Mark Donato’s music will of course find some here; I encourage you to seek out more.
Canoeful of Strangers
Mark Donato was the first drummer for the Oswalds, but from the day we met him, he was also playing guitar and singing his own songs. I was a big fan immediately, and throughout 1988 and 1989, Mark would often come over to my apartment and record his songs. The tapes are a testament to Donato’s patience. I was always trying to do something weird with my small home recording setup, so the recordings have all kinds of backwards reverb and phase-shifted dulcimer and whatever other nonsense I could conjure. Watching Donato record his vocals became a sort of spectator sport for my roommate Bill Fink and my neighbor Frank Randall (Donato with headphones on, eyes closed, hands writhing in a gentle spastic dance, Keith Jarrett-like vocalizations emerging unbidden between lines). Mark would also sometimes open Oswalds shows with a set of his own songs, especially after he left the band to work more on his own music.