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Oregon Mandolin Orchestra’s New Music Director...a Man on a Mission

Christian McKee
Music Director,
Oregon Mandolin Orchestra
Christian McKee
Music Director,
Oregon Mandolin Orchestra

Age: 39

Instruments: Mandolin, mandola, mandocello

Best Known For: The Big North Duo, with bassist Paul Prato

Residence: Portland, Ore., since 2002

Born: Minnesota; grew up in Madison,Wisc.

Family: Wife, Lisa; daughter, Zadie, 4

Hobbies: Biking, homebrewing, Southeast Asian cooking

Quote: “I get cranky when I’m not gigging.”

When Christian McKee talks about the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra, it sounds like a simple melody that hints at much more to come.

“My mission, in the short term, is simply to sustain what the orchestra already has accomplished,” said Christian, 39, of Northeast Portland.  “In the long term, it’s to continue to improve our musicianship and to grow our audience.  I really want to do that.”

Christian, a longtime mandolinist and Portland-area performer, took the conductor’s baton from Orchestra co-founder Brian Oberlin in April.  A former playing member of the Orchestra, Christian agreed to lead the 25-member ensemble after Oberlin announced he was moving back to Michigan.

The Orchestra, an all-volunteer, community orchestra based in Portland, was established in 2010.  Since then, the Orchestra has put on at least four concerts a year, offering everything from classical to Tin Pan Alley, American folk, Brazilian choro, modern rock and Christmas carols.

“I do like that mix,” Christian said.  “But I’ll definitely be looking for ways to broaden our sonic palette.”

For Christian, leading the Orchestra simply is the next movement in his life’s musical score.

Homeschooled by his parents in Madison, Wisconsin, Christian grew up in a household alive with his father’s recordings of Baroque-era pieces, John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery, and his mother's Folk Revival, Beatles and Jefferson Airplane records, to boot. While immersed in that heady mix, he was encouraged to develop his ear and voice by singing in choral groups and entering vocal competitions.  He also learned to play violin by ear in the Suzuki method.

When he was 12, Christian traveled with a choir to sing in Austria and Germany. Later, he worked for a listener-sponsored community radio station in Madison that features jazz, world music and indie rock.

After graduating from Kalamazoo College, Christian spent a year serving in AmeriCorps, leading a team working in Detroit, Michigan, elementary school.  In 2001, he followed his college girlfriend to Portland and went to work for the American Red Cross, a job he held for 10 years.

Meanwhile, however, he already had discovered the mandolin – and it was almost love at first strum. When he heard the avant-garde banjoist Bela Fleck and his group, the Flecktones, he was struck by mandolinist Sam Bush’s contributions.

“I played that CD for about a year and I was hooked, Christian said. “I figured the world didn’t need another guitarist, but there might be room for me to play mandolin.”

When he was 18, Christian borrowed a no-name, flat-top mandolin from a friend and began to get the hang of the eight high-tension strings. After a couple of years, he bought an Aria – definitely a step up despite its buzzing frets.

In 2004, Christian bought a Breedlove Columbia, Central Oregon builder Kim Breedlove’s graceful reinterpretation of Gibson’s classic carved-top, oval-hole F4 model.

“I thought it was going to be my forever instrument,” Christian said.  “It played it for about 10 years.”

But then, he succumbed to the siren call of the highly regarded Buckeye, made by Pete Hart of Ohio to echo -- and improve upon -- Gibson’s top-of-the-line F5 mandolin. Christian simply fell in love with the carved-top, F-hole model’s throaty tone and projection, along with its responsiveness and the beautifully figured maple back.

“I spent twice as much on it as I did for my car,” Christian said, chuckling.  “But I really love that mandolin.  It keeps getting better and better.”

Eager to play and perform, Christian co-founded the Portland band Rustica in 2003.  The five-piece band, performing “an eclectic blend of Americana,” lasted four years.

But Christian’s friendship and collaboration with Rusticabassist Paul Prato has endured to this day.  They formed The Big North Duo in 2010 and plunged into jazz and favorites from the Great American Songbook, along with songs with roots in Appalachian folk.  The duo, featuring Christian’s soulful voice, continues to perform at venues across the Portland metro area.

Christian said he and Paul were hired to provide “dinner music” at an Italian restaurant.  So, they methodically mastered songs made famous by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.  From there, they explored other composers of the Songbook, finding Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.

“We found that a lot of the Great American Songbook wasn’t that far off from David Grisman’s ‘Dawg’ music, Gypsy jazz or swing,” Christian said.  “To this day, I’d be happy doing ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ or ‘Mood Indigo’ every time we play.”

Around this time, Christian reached out to some other cousins in the Mandolin Family of instruments.  He bought a Flatiron mandola, attracted to the broader reach of its voice and tone.  After a while, he graduated to one of builder Paul Lestock’s Arrow mandolas, which reflect both their Gibson H-series roots anda dash of Art Deco-inspired whimsy. Christian still plays his Arrow today.

Christian’s interest in the mandocello grew from his experiments to play the larger-bodied cousin to provide some of the same tones as a guitar – “without actually having to learn the guitar.”  He bought a sadly neglected 1919 Gibson K1 and had the top re-braced, restoring its sound.

In 2012, Christian caught an Oregon Mandolin Orchestra concert and immediately was intrigued.  He soon contacted Brian Oberlin and joined the Orchestra’s mandocello section, helping to provide a solid baritone voice to the orchestra’s collective sound.

“I played in the Orchestra for about a year and really enjoyed myself,” Christian said.  “But our lives really changed and I had to quit after OMO’s April 2013 concert, right after our daughter, Zadie, was born.”

Christian also quit his Red Cross job and plunged into full-time caregiving for Zadie.  Though he no longer could commit to the Orchestra’s demanding schedule, Christian continued to perform in The Big North Duo and regularly attended the annual River of the West Mandolin Camp that Brian runs at the Menucha Retreat and Conference Center in the Columbia River Gorge. 

When Brian announced he would be moving, Christian’s name appeared prominently on the short list of potential candidates to replace him.  Endorsed by Brian, Christian was the unanimous choice of the OMO Board of Directors. Christian formally accepted the music director’s position in April.

But Christian admits to being unsure when Brian approached him about the job.

“Coincidentally, my wife, Lisa, and I had been talking about changes,” Christian said.  “We realized that Zadie was growing up quickly and soon wouldn’t need full-time care on my part, so I was beginning to think of other things I would like to do.”

That’s when he began to fully appreciate how good a fit the Orchestra music director’s job could be for him. He accepted, then began an informal-but-intensive internship under Brian, discussing everything from how to select music for the orchestra to the best ways to set tempo and give cues to the musicians.

“I really appreciate the help Brian has given me,” Christian said. “One of Brian’s greatest strengths as a musician is his clarity of vision about the music and his understanding of how to bring the Orchestra to that point.”

Christian has spent the summer combing catalogs of music the Orchestra could perform. He said he is looking forward to resuming regular rehearsals in the fall, when the most important cue he delivers will signal a rosy future for himself, the Orchestra and audiences across the region.