A major milestone

Avi Avital, who turned the mandolin into a classical instrument, has garnered a Grammy nomination in the classical music category.

Avital 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Avital 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Back in the formative days of the kibbutz movement, the mandolin was perceived to be a “non-dangerous” instrument. Unlike allowing their children to learn the violin which would raise the specter of leaving home to pursue dreams of a career in a professional orchestra in Tel Aviv or abroad, the founding fathers determined that teaching the mandolin was a benign venture that would keep the kids on the farm.
That plan didn’t work for Avi Avital. The classical mandolin artist may not have grown up on a kibbutz (it was actually Beersheba), but the 31-year-old internationally acclaimed musician has proven the kibbutz pioneers wrong by turning the instrument usually associated with bluegrass and country into a formidable classical instrument.
So formidable, in fact, that in December Avital became the first mandolin soloist to be nominated for a Grammy in the classical music category Best Instrumental Soloist with Ensemble for his performance of fellow Israeli Avner Dorman’s Mandolin Concerto recorded in 2010 with the New York-based Metropolis Ensemble.
Commissioned by Avital in 2006, the concerto has been praised for its elements of bluegrass, Middle Eastern sounds and Russian folk music processed through Dorman’s unique musical language to create a piece that highlights the mandolin’s evocative tones. Classical Today wrote that “Avital wails away at his mandolin as if his life depended on it,” while the New York Times praised his “stunning agility.”
As seems to be his nature, the mild-mannered Avital spread the credit to Dorman for the concerto’s success.
“When I approached Avner with the idea of writing a major piece for mandolin and orchestra, he really liked the idea because it was so unique and original.
That’s typical of him because it’s his artistic identity to search for the unique and add flavor and spice to his pieces, so it was perfect for him and perfect for me,” Avital told The Jerusalem Post earlier this month from his home in Berlin.
“We spent some time on Skype, with me on mandolin and him listening.
And we spent a long time improvising and talking about the mandolin and the associations it brings. Avner took all that and mixed it up to create this concerto. It’s really a reflection of all our discussions together and of our artistic identities.”
Avital’s musical identity was forged when he was eight years old in Beersheba.
A neighbor played the mandolin, and when Avital’s mother offered to send him to an after-school activity, he chose to learn the instrument. The neighbor (another of Israel’s most renowned classical mandolin players, Jacob Reuven) had just bought a new mandolin and gave his old one to Avital, which started him on the path Avital attended the city’s music conservatory under the direction of Simcha Nathansohn, who founded the Mandolin Orchestra of Beersheba in the 1970s and, as a teen, became a member of the orchestra.
“Mandolin orchestras used to be very popular in Israel. In the 1950s and ‘60s, almost every kibbutz had one. When I perform in Israel, people come backstage and tell me how they played in a mandolin orchestra, and I immediately know they’re from kibbutz,” said Avital, explaining that the tradition was brought over to the young country from Eastern and Central Europe.
“It was natural for the kibbutz to adopt that style because it’s a very social kind of gathering. In the first years, even though all official meetings and business was conducted in Hebrew, not all kibbutz members could speak the language.
So something like mandolin orchestras or a dance group were places where everyone could feel a sense of belonging.”
Avital felt his sense of belonging from the mandolin. When he joined the IDF, he was accepted to a gifted musicians program, which enabled him to continue his musical studies at the Jerusalem Music Academy and undertake performances while still fulfilling his military obligation in an office job.
Upon his discharge, when he realized he wanted to pursue a musical career, Avital decided he’d have to settle, temporarily at least, outside of Israel.
“Israel’s a small country; there’s not enough people here to fuel the career I wanted to have as a concert artist. If you create a program and perform it eight times throughout the country, then you basically have to go back and write new pieces for another program because all the audiences they’re possibly are have seen it,” he said.
Avital chose Milan as his destination for its convenient location, studies at the Conservatorio Cesare Pollini of Padova and Italy’s traditional affinity to the mandolin.
“It makes much more sense when you’re starting out and trying to develop a name in the field to be in Europe. But at the same time, it was very important for me to continue to be in Israel and be connected artistically and personally with my family and friends,” he said.
“My dream, of course, is to return to Israel at some point, but I’m in the middle of a wonderful career, touring around the world, and for now it still makes sense to spend a couple of more years in Europe.”
In 2010 alone, Avital performed in Italy, Germany and the US. He has played with leading orchestras and collaborated with prominent musicians including Mstislav Rostropovich and soprano Dawn Upshaw. In addition, he has collaborated with composers besides Dorman, commissioning dozens of new works dedicated to him and his mandolin, including a concerto by renowned Georgian composer Josef Bardanashvili.
However, in addition to that piece, it’s Dorman’s Mandolin Concerto that has evolved into his signature work, along with other concertos he’s collaborated on with Israeli composers, such as Matan Porat’s Madrigals and Menachem Wisenberg’s Concerto for mandolin and chamber orchestra.
“Orchestras that invite me to perform know that I have these concertos by Israeli composers that I like to play – they’re pieces I feel so attached to, it’s like sharing the same language with the composer because we’re all Israeli.”
Avital became aware of his Grammy nomination from a text message he received from Dorman at 6 am in Berlin saying “Congratulations.” He got up and turned on his computer to find the news. Avital considers the Grammy nomination to be a huge milestone, not just for himself but for the mandolin.
“It’s the first time the mandolin appears in a Grammy nomination under the classical category. It’s a historical moment,” he said. “Look at the classical guitar.
A hundred years ago, nobody played it. Segovia was the first to play Bach on the guitar, and then giants like John Williams and Julian Bream helped create the revolution; and now it’s a popular concert hall instrument,” he said.
“I was very much inspired by that, and I see myself as contributing to the status of the mandolin. So getting the Grammy nomination is huge! There’s double pride for me to have an Israeli composer like Avner honored and to enjoy the recognition of this unique instrument.”
Avital received his pair of invitations to the Los Angeles ceremony and is looking forward to the excitement on February 13, including an event with the Israeli consulate in LA and the heralded after-parties.
The results of the category he’s nominated in won’t be televised during the broadcast but will zoom across the screen in writing, along with all the other non-rock and pop awards. But that doesn’t bother Avital, who quipped that he’s ready to jam if somebody like Jay-Z approached him. Maybe they can put together an impromptu mandolin orchestra, for old time’s sake.