Our History

Pittsburgh, with its "melting pot" history, was an important city in the popularization of the mandolin. The instrument was affordable to the working class immigrants who had arrived here, and could be easily purchased from the Sears catalogue.  Mandolins were soon found in almost every ethnic neighborhood in the city.

From about 1890 to 1925, companies such as Gibson and Martin employed salesmen who traveled across the United States, selling instruments of the mandolin family.  The salesmen quickly found that they could generate more sales by establishing mandolin orchestras in the towns they visited.  Playing in the local mandolin orchestra became "all the rage" for the men and women of polite society. Mandolin orchestras soon became plentiful across the nation, with membership sometimes being contingent upon ethnicity, social status or political beliefs.  Here is a picture of Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra that existed during that period.

Pittsburgher Valentine Abt formed the first American classical plectrum quartet, consisting of two mandolins, tenor mandola, and mandocello. The first live radio show in the US was broadcast by our own KDKA in 1921, and the performers on that broadcast were members of the Allegro Mandolin Quartet.  H. Russell Truitt was a famous teacher (and salesman for Gibson instruments) who lived and worked in Pittsburgh for over 60 years and taught hundreds of students, some of whom are still alive and playing today.

Mandolin orchestras are enjoying a revival in the 21st century. The current Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra was founded by Alan Epstein in 2002, and early rehearsals were held in his living room in Aspinwall. The orchestra gave its first public performance on April 11, 2003, and included 15 musicians. One of the original musicians, David Long, is now nationally renowned, and some, including our founder, have moved away from Pittsburgh.  Three of those original musicians still play with the orchestra today.

We are thrilled that, in 2009, Pittsburgh has the largest mandolin orchestra in the United States. Our membership has grown to more than 40 active musicians of all ages and backgrounds, many of who perform with vintage Gibson and Martin instruments that were originally used in turn-of-the-century mandolin orchestras. Our Music Director, Charley Rappaport, is a World Master Folk Musician whose vast knowledge of the music of many cultures gives us the opportunity to present a richly diverse program for our listeners.

—Carol Palmer