Mandolin magic – and then some

Avi Avital and Omer Avital ramp it up several notches at the Israel Festival.

May 23, 2013 11:00
Avi Avital and Omer Avital

Avi Avital and Omer Avital . (photo credit: Courtesy)

One of the marks of a true artist is to push the creative envelope beyond the realms of the known and to take leaps beyond where any artist has previously set foot or, for that matter, hand. Thirty-something Israeli instrumentalist Avi Avital has been moving his digits into unexpected spheres on his mandolin for a few years now, and the extent of his wizardry will be glaringly apparent to the audiences at the Avital Meets Avital concerts at Jerusalem’s YMCA and the Mediatheque Center in Holon Friday and Saturday (10 p.m. and 9 p.m., respectively) as part of the Israel Festival.

Avital’s pyrotechnical ability on mandolin is almost Jimi Hendrixlike, as Avital really flexes the boundaries of what can be achieved on his predominantly classical instrument.

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The other part of the concert title belongs to internationally renowned jazz and ethnic music bass and oud player Omer Avital, with the two Avitals being joined by jazz pianist Omer Klein and percussionist Itamar Doari. It is a definitively heavyweight lineup in which each of the members encompasses expansive musical and cultural hinterlands, and all are at the top of their game.

The mandolin is not generally considered the sexiest of instruments and doesn’t have the instant appeal of, say, the guitar, but 34-year-old Avital seems to be raising the mandolin’s media and public interest profile. In recent years he has received some pretty head-turning reviews for his live renditions and recordings of classical works by the likes of Bach and Bloch and contemporary writers like Israeli composer Avner Dorman. In fact, the mandolinist’s recording of Dorman’s Mandolin Concerto , in the company of conductor Andrew Cyr and the Metropolis Ensemble, garnered Avital a Grammy nomination in the Best Instrumental Soloist category.

Avital has some impressive education credentials, having graduated from the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem and the Conservatorio Cesare Pollini in Padova, Italy. But his interest in his chosen instrument was, in fact, a result of pure serendipity.

“I come from Beersheba, where there is a youth orchestra of the municipal conservatory. I had a neighbor named Yaki Reuven, who today is the director the conservatory. Yaki played the mandolin, and the idea of a youth mandolin ensemble really appealed to me,” explains Avital, although he says he can’t quite put his finger on what drew him so strongly to the instrument. “I don’t know whether it was the way the mandolin looked or sounded or maybe the other kids in the orchestra. When you’re eight years old, you don’t really analyze things like that.”

Avital did not grow up on an exclusively classical musical diet. “I heard all sorts of things,” he recalls.

“Of course, I had all these wild dreams of playing rock music on guitar, and I was exposed to so many different kinds of music. The excitement you feel when, as a kid, you hear something new is hard to relive when you’re older. When you hear Pink Floyd and your brain takes off, that happens when you are younger, but as you grow older, you generally tend to be more discerning.”

As a youth, Avital sowed his wild musical oats. “I played drums and electric guitar and keyboards in rock bands, and I really got into grunge,” he says, adding that he hasn’t really consigned that thrill to the past.

“Playing rock music impacted on me greatly in terms of the experience – both of the playing and the audience response. “It’s not classical music, where you play three of four movements and only then do you hear the applause. With rock, you get a much more immediate response.

You see people dancing in real time while you are actually producing the music.”

Despite the seeming chasm between classical music and rock, Avital says his youthful musical exploits have provided him with the means to feel how his classical offerings are going over. “It is a much more subtle audience response, but I have developed a sense of how my performance is being taken in, probably due to my rock music past.

You play for the audience and you feel how what you’re giving them is being appreciated.”

Avital certainly appreciates his namesake and says their paths crossed a few years back when the New York resident bassist and oud player was on a four-year sojourn back here to study composition at the Rubin Academy.

“I was in the classical department, and we’d meet in the cafeteria and talk about music,” the mandolinist recalls, adding that they share some cultural background too. “Omer has Iraqi-Moroccan parents, and both my parents are Moroccan. We really clicked, and we shared a lot of artistic curiosity.”

They kept tabs on each other’s progress, and the current venture began to gradually gestate.

“When I was in New York, I’d check out if he was playing and I’d go along to his gig,” says Avital. The gig- hopping was a reciprocal affair. “Over the last five years or so, we kept meeting up and saying that we must get together to play some time,” he says.

The opportunity came last September when Avital received an invitation to perform at the annual Musikfest Bremen event in Germany.

It is a classical music-based festival but with one extraneous component.

”There is something called the Surprise Concert, where they take a musician and ask him to do something he’s never done before,” the mandolin player explains. “I immediately called Omer, and we started working on what became what we will be doing at the Israel Festival.”

The bass player and Klein started out as jazz musicians, and the mandolin player and Doari, respectively, tend towards the classical and ethnic music sector. But they all fuse numerous strands in their output, and the result is a heady, multilayered musical mix. Rest assured, there won’t be a dull moment at the foursome’s concerts.

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