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The Musical Economist

CAS prof moonlights as classical lute, mandolin player

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Nearly every seat is full in Robert Margo’s Tuesday morning economics class. The department chair, with a horseshoe of downy white hair and theatrical eyebrows, paces methodically at the front of the classroom as he discusses the Solow-Swan growth model, a standard model of economic growth.

Margo tosses out a question about the constancy of population growth, largely to see how many of his students are still with him. Silence. It’s around 9:30 in the morning, and several of the students taking Race and the Development of the American Economy: A Global Perspective are leaning heavily on caffeinated beverages.

“Someone raise their hand in the usual student model so I can call on them,” Margo says. The joke elicits a breathy chuckle and a student raises her hand.

Italian mandolin, baroque instruments, Robert Margo, Boston University

An Italian mandolin.

This is the Margo that most colleagues and students know. But there’s another side to the eminent College of Arts & Sciences economics professor, one that wakes up early in the morning and stays up late at night to pluck away on his collection of early musical instruments, including at least a dozen classic guitars, Renaissance and baroque lutes, classical mandolins, mandolas, a waldzither, and a Russian domra. He’s performed in local orchestras and duets and arranged scores for classical music instruments of the works of Steely Dan and the Beatles.

“I steal time whenever I can,” Margo says, for his hobby. For him, playing music is the counterpoint to his intensely cerebral economics work at the University. “I find it’s really important to have balance in life as you get older.”

Although he keeps economics and music largely separate, he sees both his vocation and his avocation as art forms. He specializes in the economic history of the United States, focusing on the ways that education, race, and the labor market have intertwined. As he sees it, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an ever-evolving end to this story—not unlike a musical score.

“I’m very happy to be in economics,” he says. “It’s practical and I’d never change for a minute. But I have this other side I wouldn’t change either.”

On a Tuesday night last fall, Margo drove an hour south to a blue-collar section of Providence, R.I., where he hauled instrument cases into a red building bearing the sign “Church of the Mediator. All Are Welcome.” Inside, a couple of dozen musicians were tuning mandolins, mandolas, a mandocello, classical guitars, and a double bass, sending a just-shy-of harmonious cacophony to the vaulted ceiling.

Robert Margo, Baroque instruments, Boston University College of Arts & Sciences professor of economics, Providence Mandolin Orchestra

Robert Margo with a baroque lute.

Dressed in black, with square-rimmed glasses, Margo took a seat in the center of the first row, one of several mandola players in the Providence Mandolin Orchestra (PMO). The group was practicing three songs, one of them an Argentinian tango called “Oblivion” written by Astor Piazzolla and arranged by Margo, for a performance in Baltimore.

Music director Mark Davis took his position at the front of the room and instructed the group to take it from measure 68. With a flick of his baton, the amorphous hum in the room switched to a sweet, beckoning tune. Musicians rocked slowly while strumming, eyes glued on Davis or on sheet music. It seemed wholly possible that at any moment a costumed couple would tango across the church’s tired wood floor.

Margo played a central part of the piece, rocking side to side, his head moving in the opposite direction, tongue peeking occasionally between pursed lips. When the song ended, he pumped his fist in the air. “That was fun!” he announced with a triumphant smile.

The group moved to other pieces, Neponset Valley Suite, composed by PMO member Owen Hartford, a former School of Education instructor of educational media and photography, and Sinfonia a pizzico by Victor Kioulaphides. Margo switched instruments, pulling his new waldzither from its case. Around him, musicians leaned in to get a closer look. He later joked that like many players, he suffers from MAS: mandolin acquisition syndrome.

The first instrument Margo ever picked up, back in the third grade, was a guitar. He stuck with it, playing jazz guitar as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and then as a Harvard grad student.

Baroque lute body, Robert Margo, Baroque instruments, Providence Mandolin Orchestra, Boston University

A renaissance lute in detail.

A decade ago, while teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, he began studying classical guitar. He later moved to Nashville, “guitar heaven,” to teach at Vanderbilt University. That’s where he picked up the mandolin, a natural choice in a city where bluegrass reigns. The stringed instrument also appealed to the history buff in him. “In the early 20th century,” he says, “it was the most popular instrument in the United States by far.”

Margo stumbled upon a community of mandolin players in Nashville (he once played with Chet Atkins), and discovered a new one when he arrived at BU in 2005. Part of the University’s appeal for him was Mugar Memorial Library’s extensive music collection, which he says rivals Harvard’s. It doesn’t hurt either that the city hosts the biennial Boston Early Music Festival. “If you’re an adult musician, there’s no better place to be than Boston,” he says.

Every week Margo treks to Providence to practice with the orchestra, which has at least four major annual concerts, and he performs regularly with the Boston Classical Guitar Society. He also plays occasional duets around Boston with classical singer Wendy Silverberg, a Cambridge elementary school music teacher whom he met at a “band camp for grown-ups.”

When Margo is not playing music, he’s arranging it. He has transformed works from the Beatles, Steely Dan, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash into scores for the PMO. When audience members hear “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in a concert hall, they look confused. “Then,” he says, “they realize, oh my god, they’re playing this on a mandolin.” Wait until they hear Radiohead, the next group whose music he’d like to arrange for early musical instruments.

Margo says he has never strummed his mandolin or lute for his students. He has, however, included an extra-credit question about early music on his exams. “Normally,” he says, “no one gets it right.”

Watch this video on YouTube

In the video above, Robert Margo and vocalist Wendy Silverberg perform George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” View closed captions on YouTube

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

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Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

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