Blazing His Own Trail with the Mandolin
Peter Ostroushko’s death is a loss for all music lovers. Here is a profile I wrote of Peter in 1996 for MandoZine Magazine.
About 20 years ago, mandolinist Peter Ostroushko experienced an epiphany while playing his repertoire of traditional American music at a Minneapolis coffeehouse. “I was going through stuff like ‘Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,’” Ostroushko explains. “Suddenly I thought, ‘You know, I’ve been to the Blue Ridge Mountains, but this music isn’t me.’” So he changed tracks and finished his set by playing music that really meant something to him — Ukrainian songs that his mother had taught him years earlier — and his career was altered forever.
Ostroushko, 43, has since continued to blaze his own musical trails. He has recorded and performed with such diverse collaborators as Bob Dylan, Sir Neville Marriner, Willie Nelson, Garrison Keillor, Bobby McFerrin, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, and Chet Atkins, and has performed on “A Prairie Home Companion,” “David Letterman,” and even “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” His own recordings have embraced swing, classical, contemporary acoustic, and Ukrainian-flavored styles.
Born into a music-filled family
Ostroushko was almost, but not quite, born with a mandolin in his arms. His mother and father, members of the sizeable Ukrainian-American community of northeast Minneapolis, often hosted musical parties. “Growing up seeing people come over to our house for those big jam sessions was incredible,” he recalls. “Watching the adults in my life have fun with music made it seem like a natural thing to do to just go and pick up an instrument and have fun playing it. My dad played the mandolin, so it didn’t seem like an odd instrument to me. People in the Ukrainian community played it, and there were little mandolin orchestras in the churches. It made perfect sense for me to play mandolin.”
Like a lot of American kids of the 1960s, he spent time playing the acoustic and electric guitar, and he also became a very skilled fiddler. “Somewhere back around the mid-1970s the things I was doing on guitar and violin somehow made more sense to me on the mandolin. Now I do all my writing, whether it’s for the fiddle or cello or anything else, on the mandolin,” he says. “For some reason the music lays out in front of me on the mandolin ‹ I can look at the fingerboard and visualize everything, even what I want other instruments to do. Mostly I think of myself as a mandolin player. I do other things, but my love really is playing the mandolin.”
He believes his musicianship improved dramatically from 1980 to 1986, when he served as a music director and regular performer on public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” show. Host Garrison Keillor insisted that all of the show’s regulars tap their creativity as much as possible. “He felt that since he had to write new comedy material for the show every week — he couldn’t use the same jokes over and over — then we as musicians couldn’t rely on playing the same standards that we play all the time. He challenged us to write new material. It was a great exercise — and I got paid for it! — to sit down every week and come up with some new music. That was probably the biggest musical change for me, figuring out that I had things to say and that I could say them.”
Songwriting remains important to Ostroushko, and his most recent recording, “Heart of the Heartland,” is full of his original music. An all-instrumental album on the Red House Records label, it uses the landscape as its theme. “When I go out and drive around, inevitably I get struck with musical images of where I am,” Ostroushko says. Some pieces — “Montana” and “Seattle” — evoke specific places, while others, including the title tune and music he originally wrote for a public TV program on the U.S.-Dakota Conflict, are more nebulous.
The result is an album that certainly evokes little of, say, the Blue Ridge Mountains. “There are even some blatant string things,” Ostroushko says, “things that kind of sound like string quartets.”
Of Ostroushko’s other recordings, he is reluctant to identify a favorite. He considers “Duo,” recorded with his longtime musical partner, guitarist Dean Magraw, a success. “I liked the concept — going into the studio with Dean and doing all the music live.” “Buddies of Swing” and “Blue Mesa” allowed him to play with such mentors and idols as Norman Blake, Nancy Blake, Jethro Burns, and Johnny Gimble. “‘Down the Streets of My Old Neighborhood’ was my Ukrainian coming-out party,” he laughs. (The album includes “Hey Good Looking” sung in Ukrainian and a musical recipe for borscht.) And then, of course, there is “The Mando Boys.”
“The Mando Boys,” which featured Ostroushko as a member of a sunglasses-wearing and fez-capped mandolin quartet, is the album that many mandolin aficionados remember best. Unlike the Modern Mandolin Quartet, whose serious approach to classical music risks easy dismissal as a weird novelty by mainstream classical music fans, Ostroushko’s quartet took another road. “People said, ‘You’re playing classical music — you should get it on some classical radio stations,’” Ostroushko remembers. “But I thought we’d always be viewed as a novelty. So we decided to really make it a novelty act.” Alas, the Mando Boys split up several years ago.
Making inroads in the classical world
But the end of the Mando Boys by no means spelled the end of Ostroushko’s involvement with classical music. In 1994, for example, he took a gig with the Minnesota Orchestra to play a week of performances of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. He had to sit on stage for nearly two hours for a mere ten or 15 minutes of playing mandolin in the fourth movement. “Every night I would sit through the first three movements trying not to make a sound,” he says. “Then I’d play my movement, and then there would be another one.” He liked Mahler’s writing for the mandolin. “There were places where the mandolin is definitely the lead instrument. Sometimes there isn’t a whole lot there, and it isn’t that difficult to play, but it was actually perfect for the instrument. I just figured Mahler had a brother-in-law who played mandolin and needed some work.”
Sitting among the orchestra players, Ostroushko increased his appreciation for their skills. “I was very amazed at their technical proficiency,” he says. “Some of this music is very difficult to play, some of it isn’t, but in a couple of rehearsals they just nail it. But what I’ve learned from bringing my own music into an orchestra setting is that what orchestras can’t do is groove. They can’t find a rhythmic pulse and play it. Unless the conductor gets it, no one does. But these people aren’t trained to do that — they’re trained to read what’s in front of them.”
Ostroushko greatly enjoyed his April 1995 performances with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra of the 18th-century mandolin concerto by Giovanni Paisiello. “Even before I knew these concerts were going to happen I started learning the piece,” he says. “I love it so much, I would always have it running in my car [stereo] when I was going down the road.” The Paisiello concerto offers “techniques that I haven’t had to use before,” he adds. “I’ve gotten charged, and I’ve noticed that my playing has gotten better since I started working on this one piece.”
In May 1997, Ostroushko returns to the classical concert stage, joining the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in performances of Vivaldi’s mandolin concerto and concerto for viola d’amore and mandola. The orchestra will also play Ostroushko’s own “Prairie Suite.”
Building his own instrument
Up until about five years ago, Ostroushko exclusively played old Gibson A-style mandolins, which he preferred over F-style models because of the darkness and roundness of their tone. “I had a really nice one that I liked,” he says. “But I got concerned because it is an old instrument, and I was literally wearing it out playing it so much. I was going to have to bring it into the repair shop for three or four weeks, which I just couldn’t afford to do.”
So he began looking for a replacement. “Years ago I met a man named Peter White, who teaches folklore at the University of New Mexico but also builds violins, violas and cellos that he sells to orchestral musicians around the world. His real love, though, is old-time fiddle music. I had him make me four- and five-string fiddles, and I was in Albuquerque just as he had made some A-model mandolins, copies of the Gibson. I played some and thought they were very nice. He told me, ‘Well, if you want to come down here in the summertime to spend a week and do a lot of the grunt work, I will make one for you and you can have it. If you like it, play it. If you don’t, do a Jimi Hendrix on stage with it.’”
Ostroushko liked it, saving himself from having to splinter a mandolin in public. He had never before helped anyone build an instrument. Much of the instrument’s great sound, he says, was the result of one of the final processes of construction. “As a violin maker, Peter uses varnish, not stain or lacquer,” Ostroushko says. “It’s a secret recipe he guards with his life.”
A lucky mandolinist
The birth of Ostroushko’s daughter, Anna, six years ago refocused his career, he says. (His wife, Marge, is a producer for Public Radio International.) “Now that Anna’s at the jealous stage, as soon as I pick up the instrument she’s right on me, saying, ‘Tato [Ukrainian for ‘papa’], hold me.’ I know that if I have to practice something or write some music on a deadline, I only have an hour or two here and there to do it, and those hours are being used to good purpose — I’m not diddling around.”
Over the years, through the tough times and nightmarish touring schedules, Ostroushko has occasionally become discouraged about continuing his career as a musician. When that happens, he thinks about gigs like one he once played with Dean Magraw in a small town in Montana. “There were maybe 150 people listening to us there,” he says. “But they were standing up and giving us ovations in the middle of songs. There’s nothing better than that, to be able to go on stage, to play the music you’ve written. I think of all the things I could do in life to make a living, but nothing else is going to move people the way playing music does. This is what I’m supposed to do, so I do it — even if it means suffering through some hard times. I just thank my lucky stars that I can make a living playing the mandolin.”