Life can be lonely for a classical mandolin soloist.
Neil Gladd -- by his estimation one of four professional classical mandolinists in the country and the only one in the Washington area -- is on the faculty of the Shenandoah College & Conservatory of Music in Winchester, Va.
He teaches mandolin -- or rather, he would teach mandolin, if he could. "I'm listed on their faculty. I'm in their catalogue." But, Gladd says, "I have zero students."
He did have a student, once. "He took as many lessons as he needed for his degree and stopped," Gladd recalls.
With a legitimate claim to the titles of musician, composer, teacher, lecturer, editor, writer and scholar, and with no other professional competition in the area, it would seem that the 30-year-old Gladd should have few worries. But that claim is based on a mandolin, and the mandolin is an underdog in the music world.
"So far my resume' is growing faster than my bank account," Gladd says. His appearances as a soloist have included performances at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution and Wolf Trap; his album, "The Solo Mandolin: Baroque to Modern," received favorable notices.
Another recital will be added to that resume' Saturday afternoon ("The Amazing American Mandolin" at Dumbarton United Methodist Church, 4 p.m.); Gladd hopes ticket sales at least match expenses.
Gladd acknowledges that "there is not any immediate commercial reason for playing the mandolin. There aren't a lot of jobs. You have to really love the instrument, or you wouldn't be able to get through it."
And he does love the mandolin. Moreover, he believes in himself. "If I were convinced that I wasn't eventually going to make it, I would give it up. I am sure that I am good enough. People who play less well than I do are making a living."
Calling himself a "purist," Gladd says he is "uncompromisingly classical" in the music he plays. "I think people associate the mandolin with serenades and background music, exclusively; and I just refuse to reinforce the stereotype. I am trying to popularize the mandolin as a classical instrument. I'd like people to accept it on an equal basis with other instruments, rather than think of it as a novelty."
Musically he is in a Catch-22 situation: "A lot of mandolinists think I'm a snob because I only play classical music, and classical musicians turn their noses up at the mandolin." An oboist, he remembers, once denounced the mandolin for being "so limited." Gladd retorted that he could play a fugue on the mandolin; could the oboist do that? No. Conceding that "every instrument has its limitations," Gladd nevertheless maintains that "the mandolin can do anything; it is the mandolinists, however, who are limited."
Not the least of the mandolin's limitations is its image. Many people are "used to its sounding bad" and expect the "awful, tremolo sound of a cheap, tinny mandolin," Gladd says. He also encounters strong bias from other musicians, who, he finds, base their opinions on "what they think the mandolin sounds like. They have never heard the mandolin played well, and so they assume that it can't be played well."
On the bright side, the life of a classical mandolinist can be full of "firsts." For example, Gladd's program for Saturday's concert boasts a number of premieres, including the first American mandolin sonata and the first American mandolin concerto. The concerto is such a neonate that Gladd received the third movement from composer Brian Israel just last week. In fact, Gladd now has more music than he can handle. "I have a backlog of premieres to give," he says.
Gladd was no child prodigy, having taken up the mandolin at the age of 18. "I have yet to take a lesson on it," he says. "I had been playing for about five years before I met anyone else that played the mandolin." Most of the others either were beginners or did not play as well as he did at the time, Gladd notes.
Virginia Tech, where he was one of the first music majors, had few resources to offer the mandolinist. Gladd recalls being passed, like a shuttlecock across a net, from one helpless teacher to another. The head of the music department sent him to the cello instructor, who in turn sent him to the violin instructor. He had plenty of classes in musicology, but no mandolin lessons. "My counselor told me that the mandolin was a complete waste of time and that I needed to learn how to play a real instrument," Gladd says. "That's really what got me started -- it was the negative thing. I was just determined to prove these people wrong. I knew there had to be more to the mandolin than they thought there was. I have found there is."
He has also defied the scorners of the mandolin by unearthing more mandolin music than anybody ever imagined existed. "Everybody gave me the impression that only Vivaldi and Beethoven had ever written for it . . . I thought, there's got to be more. So I started researching the literature, and it became an obsession for me. I've since found original classical mandolin music by over 1,500 composers . . . from Baroque sonatas for mandolin up to contemporary things for the electric mandolin . . . The more I look, the more I find. There is just no end to the mandolin literature."
And there seems no end to Gladd's thirst for it. After a successful and nearly decade-long search for mandolin compositions, Gladd wants more. If he had a million dollars, Gladd says, he would "run out and commission composers to write mandolin pieces" -- thereby adding to his backlog of premieres.
But Gladd doesn't have a million dollars. Far from it. He says he earned about $2,000 last year -- "I live at home with his family or I'd be out in the street." He has tried earning a 9-to-5 living.
"When I was first out of college, I had a couple of office jobs, but I could never stand it for more than four months at a time. I was making money, but I couldn't stand it. Now I have much less money, but everything I do have I make through music, which is a lot more satisfying to me."