(By Zan Mazanec, written 24 October 1995)


(This article was published in the programme booklet for the Perth International Mandolin Festival held at the University of Western Australia in January 1997.)


Most great or useful things in existence at present, being often taken for granted, had their humble beginnings. Usually an idea, frequently a dream, were the starting points. These formed over time, took shape and with a great amount of effort and dedication, came sometimes to fruition. The West Australian Mandolin Orchestra (WAMO), now almost 20 years old, had such an origin.

The man with the dream of establishing a mandolin orchestra in Western Australia was Harry Baker of the Netherlands. With his wife Toni and son Harry Jun., they arrived in Fremantle in 1953, bringing with them instruments and a suitcase full of music scores for a mandolin orchestra. In 1957 they established a music school in Fremantle and began to teach the guitar, mandolin and the piano accordion. It was at this school, that 17 year old Robert Schulz obtained his first lessons on these instruments. He progressed rapidly, because he had already been studying the piano since the age of 8. Being a good and fast learning musician, Robert decided to further himself on the pianoforte, so in 1971 he left for London, where in 3 years time he obtained his Teaching Diploma at the Guildhall School of Music. 

In the meantime the Fremantle School of Music continued, but received a setback when Harry Baker Sen. died. However, Toni and Harry Jun. continued teaching and Robert Schulz returned to the School in late 1975. The idea of forming a mandolin orchestra was still alive, so on 30 January 1976 Harry organised a meeting of all interested to discuss the matter. All 17 people present at the meeting agreed that a mandolin orchestra should be formed and the world learned about this historic decision in a small news item in the Independent Post on 4 February, 1976. The article conveys Harry's appeal for help of finding some 30 players, a venue for rehearsals and a help from organisations willing to hear the orchestra.  

Fremantle Music School, 21 Parry St, Fremantle, WA 

The first conductor and musical director of the new Orchestra became Robert Schulz. The conductor set out immediately to work and publicise the new Orchestra in the local newspapers. Thus the Fremantle-Coburn News announced that the Fremantle Music School had put together a mandolin group consisting of 8 players (2 of each, 1st, 2nd, mand., mandola, guit.), but looking for 30-40 others. The paper quotes Robert's modest wish: ... "at this stage we are looking for people who know the notes. The training and learning of classical pieces will come later". Obviously, the players on hand were talented, because a month after its establishment, the Orchestra gave the first concert at the Fremantle Arts Centre, being billed as the Fremantle Mandolin Orchestra. The rapid rate of training was further apparent at the end of the year, when in November 1976 the Fremantle Mandolin Orchestra was the main performer at the Eisteddfod Winner's Concert, and Louise and Penny Ross the winners of the Mandolin Grade 3 and 6, respectively.

Under the leadership of Robert the Orchestra grew and a year after its establishment had 20 players. They rehearsed regularly on Monday nights at the Fremantle Music School, of which Robert became the Principal. The music played was that from Harry Baker's repertoire, but there were also arrangements and original compositions by Robert. Since winning the State Prize in the A.S.M.E. competition for young composers in 1970, Robert was by now (1977), almost an old hand at composing. Thus the programme of the 1 year old FMO consisted of 4 arrangements and one original composition "The Wedding Suite" by Robert Schulz. At the end of 1978 the Orchestra changed its rehearsing venue to the present assembly hall of the East Fremantle Primary School.


In January 1979 members of the Orchestra travelled to Bendigo in Victoria, attending the Summer Mandolin Music Camp. Here for the first time, the FMO not only played in the "East", but also played an original composition by its conductor. It was at this Camp that the Federation of Australasian Mandolin Ensembles (FAME) Inc. was formed. Plans were made to send The  Australian Mandolin Orchestra on a tour to Germany and rehearsals for the tour began. Six members of the FMO were chosen to go to Germany with the Orchestra and for this, the Fremantle City Council donated $750.00.


Photo at right shows the orchestra at the FAME camp
in Bendigo in 1979 (see also at end of article).


Up to this time most of the players lived around Fremantle, but now others joined in from Perth. It was felt that the name FMO was no longer appropriate, so the Orchestra was renamed The West Australian Mandolin Orchestra (WAMO). The first public performance under this name was at the Parkerville Amphitheatre on 5 April 1981.

In 1982 WAMO staged its first big venture, the 4th Summer School Camp under the auspices of FAME. The venue was the St George College of the University of Western Australia in Perth. The FAME Orchestra was conducted by Fred Witt, imported from Germany. Also taking part in the Camp was the Australian Mandolin Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Hooper from Sydney. This Orchestra rehearsed separate items and then performed them in the second half of the final concert in Winthrop Hall.

The instruments played in the Orchestra were a mixture of the round-back and several flat-back mandolins. Often the latter type was regarded as inferior to the former, and in Melbourne no flat-back mandolins were being played. In 1983, a member of WAMO, needing a new mandola, approached the local luthier, Scott Wise of Fremantle, to have one built. The venture was entirely new, since Scott had never built one before and so it was with a good measure of reluctance that he finally agreed to build a flat-back mandola in time for the player to take the instrument to the 5th FAME Camp in Geelong. The sound of the new mandola attracted an immediate attention and convinced the most hardened opponents of the flat-back mandolins that there is indeed beauty in this type of instruments. Even Robert Schulz, who at one stage wanted to outlaw them, wanted to own one. The idea that the whole of WAMO should be playing on such instruments took root.

Between May and September of 1984 Scott Wise made a trip to America. He searched the forests of Alaska and found a well seasoned log of Sitka Spruce with dense growth rings as well as a good quantity of American Maple. He brought this timber to Fremantle and from that one log of Sitka Spruce, with the help of several grants, built mandolins, mandolas and an acoustic bass guitar for the players of WAMO. These instruments now give the Orchestra its characteristic sound.

In January 1986 WAMO staged another FAME Music Camp, the venue being the Methodist LadiesCollege. The conductor was Peter Bandy and the final concert was held in the Octagon Theatre. During the subsequent months, there began to develop signs of dissent in the Orchestra. The chief reason was probably the selection and inadequate rehearsing of music being played in public. A meeting was held, different opinions discussed and Robert decided that 10 years as a conductor had been long enough and that he would resign towards the end of the year. Rehearsals continued and the 10th WAMO Anniversary Concert was held on 1 November 1986. The programme included one of Robert's larger compositions called Gungaia, consisting of 5 movements, each representing a scene from the Australian environment.

The conductor who took over the reins of WAMO was Leonard Regnier, a guitarist of note. Leonard's personality and taste for certain type of music made him a popular conductor with both audiences and the players. Under his guidance the Orchestra recorded a cassette tape "The Magic of Mandolin", a steady seller to this day. To the great disappointment of players, Leonard's stay with the Orchestra was not long, he resigned in July 1988 and moved to Sydney, much greener pastures for his guitar playing.

In September 1988 WAMO began rehearsing under the baton of the new conductor, David Pye. A percussionist with the Perth Symphony Orchestra, David proved to be an excellent musician and as the conductor, quickly won the respect of the players. The first WAMO concert conducted by David was on 4 December 1988 at the Fremantle Arts Centre. The Orchestra prospered under David's leadership, giving several concerts each year.  For the 3rd time, WAMO players then staged another Annual Summer Camp (the 12th) in  January 1992, the venue being the Edward'sBusiness College in O'Connor, Perth. The FAME orchestra was conducted by our old friend Leonard Regnier from Sydney, and the final concert was held at the Fremantle Town Hall. The following year, January 1993, the entire WAMO and its conductor travelled to Melbourne to take part in the First International Mandolin Festival. Playing along with other orchestras, WAMO stood its ground well. To a large degree this was due to the efforts of the conductor, who  proved himself also a successful composer. Apart from numerous arrangements and smaller compositions for the mandolin orchestra, David produced a major work in 1992, called "The Symphony for Mandolins". This was premiered by WAMO at its final concert in 1993. At present the players are preparing to host the Second International Mandolin Festival in Perth in January 1997. To this end, the organisers have already commissioned Robert Schulz to write a new composition. The Festival promises to be a great event worthy of attendance. 

Zan Mazanec
24 October 1995    

Fremantle Mandolin Orchestra 1979
Back Row:    Kerry Baker, Harry Baker, Ann Palumbo, John Wheatley, Robert Schulz
Middle Row: Ian Ross,  ???, Captain Tucker, Carmel ......
Front Row:   Cathy Baker, Penny Ross, Louise Ross, Beryl ......, Win Ross

Photo taken in Bendigo, Victoria 1979 (FAME music camp).