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Caterina Talks Classical

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
May 8, 2009 - 6:00 am

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

Exploring the Mandolin Cafe is like going to college. You head to campus to have a good time and study a field that you're interested in, then you're startled when you find yourself enthralled by something new.

Such as, world-class player Caterina Lichtenberg and classical mandolin music.

A few years ago I went to hear Mike Marshall and Chris Thile in concert because I'd heard both play bluegrass and newgrass before and knew how amazing they sound in those styles. But their duo mandolin renditions of Bach hit me hardest.

So I began to peruse the classical mandolin topics a bit more on the Cafe. It didn't take me long to realize a musical style that I thought filled a small, obscure niche is instead a large and broad field on the world stage.

Lichtenberg approaches the mandolin and acoustic music from the opposite direction. She's at home on premier classical concert stages with orchestras, in chamber groups, in a duo or as a solo performer. Just like many of her bluegrass kindred spirits she's a multi-instrumentalist, specializing in mandolin, soprano lute and guitar.

While Lichtenberg, 39, is a world-class classical player based in Germany, she also is exploring bluegrass, swing, bossa nova and folk from the Americas.

"Whatever style you play you need to do it in a creative way by knowing and understanding the specific idea of the style," Lichtenberg said. "About the mandolin technique, there are some similarities, like cross picking. But I realized that in classical music the right hand after the down stroke is resting on the string, and in bluegrass the hand is going up and down with the rhythm, following the meter."

You can learn techniques, she said, but understanding cultures helps express the correct emotions in the music.

Lichtenberg was born in Bulgaria but raised in the ancient town of Magdeburg in the former East Germany.

"I grew up in a big house with my German grandparents from my father's side," she said. "They lived on the first floor, my parents on the second floor and my brother and me, and later my sister, on the third floor.

"On every floor there existed a different music taste. My grandparents loved the Italian opera—Puccini, Verdi. My parents loved baroque and classical music and listened a lot to Bach, Telemann, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart and other composers. My father as well is a fan of blues and swing music. And my brother, a jazz-educated musician, he listened to Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman and George Benson.

"In the summer we went to Bulgaria to meet my grandparents on my mother's side and hundreds of relatives, and we were surrounded by Bulgarian music, which is very hot and rhythmical, very interesting.

"The mix of music influenced me."

Lichtenberg remembers as a toddler sitting on her mother's knees at the piano, as her mother gave her brother piano lessons.

"It was a nightmare for my brother but I liked it and got used to music," she said. "When I was six years old, my parents took me to a concert of a mandolin orchestra and I liked it, so I chose the mandolin."

Studies at a music school in Magdeburg further steeped her in classical styles and by age 17 Lichtenberg was a performing professionally. A few years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and she went to West Germany to study classical mandolin and guitar. But she also began absorbing other styles.

"When I was a teenager I listened to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli," Lichtenberg said. "I have few CDs from Alison Krauss, she has a wonderful voice. For 20 years I've collected CDs by David Grisman and Mike Marshall. I was hoping to meet them someday and it became real in 2007 when I was invited to the Mandolin Symposium. There I met as well other great players like Don Stiernberg and Rich Del Grosso, who I had met earlier at a classical mandolin convention. I also enjoyed listening to Andy Statman and Hershel Sizemore. I have some CDs too that I like by Sam Bush and Radim Zenkel, and many other muscians. I like Butch Baldassari's music and I feel very sad that he passed away."

She's also a fan of Bill Monroe.

"I recognize that he is the "father" of many mandolin players today," Lichtenberg said. "And he was yodeling, too, like they do in Bavaria in southern Germany."

Her mandolins are Neapolitans, or bowlbacks, while Monroe's were Gibson's with slightly arched tops and backs. But both have eight strings and are plucked. What separates the musical styles played on them is the right hand technique in applying the plectrum to the strings.

"My mandolin technique is based on the tradition of the classical mandolin school from the 18th century," Lichtenberg said. "At that time the mandolin was very highly regarded, especially in France. Many mandolin methods were published then in Paris and Lyon by people such as Gabriele Leone, Giovanni Battista Gervasio, Pietro Denise, Giovanni Fouchetti and Michele Corette. They taught that for the right hand the down stroke is the main technique... by down-down-up stroke, or down-down-down-up stoke, or others."

The techniques are a variation of cross picking, she said. They differed from the tremolo styles that became popular in the 19th century.

Lichtenberg is a world traveler, and she's noticed that playing different musical styles is similar to speaking various languages.

"I think if you really want to be good at a special style—classical, jazz or bluegrass—you need to go deep into this language," she said. "In classical music, you need this long breath for a phrase in music. You play with the tempo and the beat. Instead of giving every quarter note a beat, you have it every bar, so you can move in the music with the tempo between the bars with not losing the beat, kind of Rubato or Inegal playing.

"The bluegrass or swing music I think is more dance music and you need to transport a different feeling. The beat is on every quarter note or every off-beat."

Classical music, like other styles, is born in specific cultures, Lichtenberg said. Understanding those cultures helps one interpret the music.

"What helps to understand the classical music is to read books about the time it was written," she said. "Look at paintings or at the architecture of that time, and listen to the recordings."

"I think if I would want to become a bluegrass musician, I would need to move to America, or at least for awhile, or listen to the music 12 hours a day. It's like learning a new language. If somebody wants to learn Bach, it would be helpful to come to Germany for a time and be surrounded by this culture."

Like a bluegrass mandolin picker stealing licks from a fiddler, Lichtenberg also likes to listen other instruments in the classical field.

"Especially for early music, I listen to singers, harpsichord players, violinists and lutists," she said.

European mandolin players emphasize tradition, Lichtenberg said, and tradition there dictates bowlback mandolins, unlike America where the "flatbacks" dominate.

"I'm very connected to my bowlback instruments and can't imagine playing Bach on a flat mandolin," she said. "But when I do play chords (I try) and Choro music, I can imagine having another instrument for this, maybe a Gibson would be better. I love the sound of the Gibson mandolins, it's a big, round sound. But it is hard for me to hold them in the right way in my hands because I miss the belly."

Lichtenberg's recording and touring dates with Mike Marshall brings the two instruments together, along with the various musical styles.

"When I met Mike, I realized that his way was very similar to mine, just coming from the opposite direction—me coming from the classical world and going to American and Brazilian music, Mike coming from American music such as bluegrass but also recording classical with his Modern Mandolin Quartet. Playing together is so much fun for both of us. I've learned a lot from him and he says he's learned from me, too.

Our concerts represent mandolin history, early music from the 17th century, classical composers from the 18th century, romantic music from the 19th century, choro music, Bulgarian music, songs written by Mike and others. We play a bunch of different instruments, my soprano lute and classical mandolin with Mike's Gibson mandolin and mandocello. In December we recorded our first CD together, and I'm so excited to listen to it. It will be released on Mikes Label Adventure Music in late summer.

Despite mastering so many styles, Lichtenberg is still exploring.

"I've always been open to other styles," she said. "Ten years ago guitarist Mirko Schrader and I recorded a CD with songs by American composers. Later, with Diego Jascalevic from Argentina and guitarist Peter Ernst from German we built Trio Delicado by playing Italian and Brazilian music. Music for me is a way of communicating."

"But I guess there are a lot more fantastic mandolin musicians I haven't met yet. The mandolin musical world is so big and colorful. It's amazing, the scene is growing every day."

Caterina favorites:

- Instruments: "I do play different mandolins, the modern Neapolitian mandolin and the baroque mandolin, which is a soprano lute played with a feather."

"I performed many years with a Neapolitan Seiffert mandolin. Reinhold Seiffert died a few years ago. But now we have to give a chance to the younger generation, too. So now I play and modern Neapolitan made by Alfred Woll, a young and very talented maker from southwest Germany. A modern Neapolitan mandolin is slightly larger and louder, with some internal construction differences, from the bowlbacks made in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"I do play three different models of the baroque mandolin. They're made by Bernd Holzgruber, Frank-Peter Dietrich and Alfred Woll. The instruments are so different and I use them for different types of music or groups.

- Website: Her web site include samples of her performances are also found on various web video sites.

- Listening: Her suggestions as starting points for novices who want traditional classical include recordings by Quartetto Colori, Gertrud Weyhofen ("especially the Calace Preludes"), ArteMandoline, Ugo Orlandi and Alison Stephens. "There is an old recording from Rafaele Calace, who died in 1934. Giuseppe Anedda was a famous mandolin player of the 20th century." She also suggests some of her soprano lute CDs, found on her website.

- Other musicians: "I love listening to Glenn Gould, Yo Yo Ma, Nigel North, Maurizio Pollini, Julian Bream, Alfred Brendel, Cecilia Bartoli and many others. Right now I listen a lot to blues, jazz and bluegrass mandolin music. I love it! But of course, in Europe we have good classical mandolin players like Juan Carlos Munoz, Gertrud Weyhofen, Silke Lisko, Ugo Orlandi, Carlo Aonzo and Avi Avital. I also enjoyed at the Mandolin Symposium hearing Hamilton de Holanda and Danilo Brito from Brasil. They play a different style, the choro music, but it's great, too."

- Day job: She has a professorship position teaching mandolin in Cologne, Germany, at Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln, Standort Wuppertal. As well as directing the baroque ensemble.

- On tour: check her website, she travels the world include some U.S. concerts this summer in conjunction with the Mandolin Symposium.

- European scene: "In Europe there are many mandolin orchestras and players who are organized in a society called BDZ, Bund Deutscher Zupfmusiker" There are also other societies, and most also participate in the European Mandolin and Guitar Association. Some universities and music conservatories in Europe also offer mandolin studies.

- New recordings: "My latest recordings include a CD with Mike Marshall, which will be out in a few months, and a CD with my new trio. It's TrioMiSu with Mirko Schrader on guitar and lute, Silke Lisko playing mandolin and soprano lute, and me. This CD will be out in a few months, too."

In addition she has nine CDs released currently with a variety of musicians, including guitar, mandolin and harpsichord.

- Wishes: "We mandolin players need more orchestra compositions. It would be great if some good contemporary composers would get inspired to write for the mandolin, maybe for the solo mandolin with orchestra. This would be great for our instrument and get it more known by a bigger audience."

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