From Italy to Redwood City with Strings Attached: The Aurora Mandolin Orchestra

in A&E/Featured

By Jane Lodato
Photos by Erin Ashford

From behind the double doors of an annex to the Veterans Memorial Senior Center comes the disembodied whiff of music that can’t be – but it is – right out of “The Godfather.” Or is it back to Sorrento that this river of lush and romantic sound carries off someone who’s only gone out to walk the dog — and come within earshot of the Aurora Mandolin Orchestra?

Every Wednesday evening, musicians from as far away as Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley gather to rehearse — strumming and plucking and picking the strings of instruments shaped like long-necked wooden spoons. The mandolin sometimes is also described as being shaped like “a teardrop,” which makes a lot of sense given that mandolin music is so moving. The Aurora Mandolin Orchestra’s 30 members – both professional and amateur musicians — play mandolin, mandola, mandocello, guitar, string bass, accordion, flute and percussion.

The orchestra is a bit of a hidden treasure in the city where it landed in 1970 under the leadership of the Gino Pellegrini, the late husband of the current director, Josephine. The Aurora orchestra was originally founded in North Beach in the 1930s, at a time when there were only a handful of small mandolin clubs around the country. In 1939, the Aurora played at the Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island.

Things in the mandolin world are going stronger than ever today. There are 40 registered mandolin orchestras in the United States, and the number grows each year; this local old-world classic orchestra has managed not only to survive but to thrive. The Redwood City-based Aurora is the largest and remains the oldest group of its kind in Northern California.

The mandolin has a distinct, high, sweet, blissfully romantic sound which is produced by playing tremolo with a plectrum (pick). The pick is much like the bow on the violin. It is soothing, somehow comforting, even therapeutic.

“Many who listen to us play comment that they feel as though the music transcends them to faraway places,” says Josephine Pellegrini, affectionately known as Jo, who is the joyful, inspired conductor, artistic director, and consummate leader of everything Aurora.

“It is a delicate sound,” adds Bob Rizzetto one of the ensemble’s dedicated musicians, who is a welder by day. Rizzetto alternates between playing his flatback mandocello and roundback mandolin, occasionally treating the audience to a spontaneous serenade while the orchestra warms up. The enchanting sound is one that is never forgotten. “If you are exposed to it, it will take,” adds Rizzetto.

Matt Vuksinich, a busy ER doctor, grew up in Redwood City playing the mandolin. Vuksinich has played with Aurora for 15 years. Why? “I get rejuvenated and have a lot of fun.” But for him, it is more than this. “In a way it is a tribute to the great players who have taught me and since died. They were famous to us,” Vuksinich adds with obvious affection. The Aurora keeps alive the heritage and tradition of the Italian masters who settled in North Beach: Gino Pellegrini, Lorenzo and Frank Andrini, Matteo Casserino, Rudy Cipolla and others.

Several of the orchestra’s regular “gigs” are out-of-town, but the group performs at least once a year at the Veterans Memorial Senior Center, including for a Valentine’s Day dance.

The Aurora is invited back every Labor Day weekend to play at the Belmont Greek Festival, and in September presented a crowd-pleasing “round the world” repertoire that ranged from Neapolitan favorites like “Arrivederci Roma” to Astor Piazzola tangos, augmented by star arias from two opera singers. Another popular annual performance is at the San Francisco Library in the Koret Center, which often sells out, taking place this year on Dec. 1.

How an orchestra built around an instrument that evolved from the lute family in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries managed to get transplanted to Redwood City – and to have lasted so long — is a story in itself. Fittingly, it involves romance – and the passing of batons. It was a love story that launched this charming, skilled, old-world mandolin orchestra.

Jo Pellegrini, who has boundless energy, is about to celebrate her 80th birthday. She was raised in New York by immigrant parents. Music was a big part of her daily life – with family and friends joyously gathered nightly to play and sing.

Growing up, it was “music, always music,” she explains.

Widowed at 37, she was left with three children in college. To support them, she worked in a music studio on Long Island, teaching piano. Her boss was a consummate mandolin composer and aficionado.

When he passed away, Jo was asked to receive a plaque on his behalf at music convention. It was here that she met the charming Gino Pellegrini, whose presence could not be ignored.

A recent widower, he lived in San Carlos. And though Jo was in New York, Gino decided then and there that he needed to know her. A visit promptly followed. An accomplished pianist, Jo shared her talent and her cornucopia of musical instruments, prompting her future husband to declare “You are the gal for me.” Thus began his seven-year cross-country pursuit.

However, she was solely focused on getting her kids through college. Love letters began to arrive. They were written in Italian, and Jo’s mother translated. “Who is this guy? How old is he?” mom wanted to know.

“I have no clue. But he is incredible,” Jo replied.

Seeing that she owned a mandolin, Gino taught her to play over the phone, endlessly giving her pointers. He had honed his own mandolin skills by playing with all the Italian greats who, like him, had immigrated to North Beach.

Her kids encouraged her. “Mom, this guy is amazing. Go for it,” they said. For the woman who would become Mrs. Pellegrini, in the end, it was “the music that attracted me so much. We’d just sit in the kitchen and play duets.”

They married in 1994.

Jo Pellegrini joined the Aurora Mandolin Orchestra, which her husband led. “He was a virtuoso as far as I was concerned,” she says. When he died in 1990, the orchestra members implored her to step in.

Jo Pellegrini reluctantly agreed, never having led an orchestra. When asked if she was nervous, she laughs. “I was shaking. I shook. I couldn’t even talk. I don’t write anything down I don’t know what I am going to say.

“All these fellows were in the original Aurora – all men, mostly Italian. Years ago, women were not allowed to play. Their wives did not want women in Aurora.”
“I like to play music that is appealing to the public,” says Pellegrini, whose idol is André Rieu, leader of the famed Johann Strauss Orchestra. “I like to see the audience reaction. I think about how to make it fun. Will I play it like the music says to, where we are supposed to repeat? No, that is boring.”

The San Carlos resident makes it even more fun by engaging her audience. “This song is about romance,” she tells them. “It is about the kiss. Who doesn’t like romance? Who doesn’t like the kiss?” She smiles and adds, “But don’t get any ideas.”

Under her leadership, utilizing her creativity and ingenuity, Pellegrini has expanded the thriving Aurora’s diverse repertoire into unusual musical terrain for a mandolin orchestra. The Aurora is renowned for delighting all ages with its choices – from classics like “Begin the Beguine,” “Return to Sorrento” and “Zorba the Greek” to show tunes, folk music, opera arias and, of course, traditional mandolin music from the past. Pellegrini brings in talented guest musicians and dancers, in addition to opera singers.

The Aurora Mandolin Orchestra welcomes people of any age and any level to come, at no cost, to their weekly, rehearsals on Wednesday evenings in the Sequoia Room annex at the senior center in Redwood City. “Our rehearsals are fun and the people we have are much like family,” adds the beloved matriarch, who is known to bring her biscotti and other homemade delights to share.

Says Pellegrini: “My goal is to continue to perform, educate, persevere and perpetuate this unique musical art form. … I’m grateful and proud that my husband’s musical legacy prevails through the support and commitment to me by all the members of Aurora. Gino would be proud!”

Indeed, he should be.