Made for the mandolin: Avi Avital returns to his homeland

An Israeli musician spreads the instrumental word far and wide

  (photo credit: CHRISTOPH KÖSTLIN)
(photo credit: CHRISTOPH KÖSTLIN)

Traditionally the mandolin – if anyone actually pays attention to the relatively diminutive instrument – has been associated with all kinds of areas of artistic endeavor. It and its stringed siblings, through wide cultural tracts, are to be found in bands and ensembles performing ethnic music from Turkey in the guise of the baglama or saz; there is the oud in Arabic music; and the guitar in such areas as flamenco in Spanish folk, pop, rock and plenty more.

But few will have noted the mandolin’s contribution to the vast Western classical oeuvre across the centuries. Avi Avital has been doing something about that, all over the globe, for a few years now. 

The 44-year-old Beersheba-born, now Berlin-resident musician is the star soloist in the forthcoming five-date local tour of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s “The Philosopher” series. The concerts will take place in Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Zichron Yaakov and Jerusalem, June 23-27.

The program for the performances – as usual, overseen by founder, music director and conductor Avner Dorman – takes in broad tracts of genre and stylistic domains arcing from Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto in A Minor” adapted for mandolin, to Haydn’s “Symphony No. 22 in E-flat Major” by early 19th-century Basque composer Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga – aka The Philosopher; and more contemporary fare in the form of German-born Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim’s “Sonata for Two Mandolins, Guitar, Harpsichord, Harp, and String Orchestra” written in 1969; and “Concerto for Mandolin and Orchestra in G Major” by Austrian composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel who, like Arriaga, who was dubbed The Spanish Mozart, straddled the transitional period between Classical and Romantic music.

Avital will be putting in a star turn or two at the concerts, and it is thoroughly deserved. No one has done more than he has to get the mandolin top billing and to bring the instrument to the notice of fellow artists and music industry honchos around the world. 

For starters, Avital is the world’s first mandolin player to be nominated for a Grammy. That was quite some time ago now, back in 2011 when he was fittingly included in the Best Instrumental Soloist category for his recording of Dorman’s “Mandolin Concerto.”

In the interim, Avital has been doing the rounds of the global music circus, taking in synergies with top co-professionals from divergent fields, such as Middle Eastern ethnically-leaning New York-based Israeli jazz bassist Omer Avital; fellow German-resident Israeli jazz pianist Omer Klein; German countertenor Andreas Scholl; and even Georgian puppet theater company Budrugana Gagra.

And to think Avital started life in a then-cultural-backwater in the Negev. To borrow from Monty Python’s iconic parrot sketch, who would have thought 30-plus years ago that Avital would become a member of the classical music upper class, and the first mandolin player to be signed by the prestigious record label Deutsche Grammophon? 

“It is unbelievable that, at the age of 8, I woke up one morning and thought to myself: ‘Who wants to play the mandolin?’ and not just that, ‘Who wants to advertise the instrument all around the world?’” he laughs. 

That may seem like an unlikely scenario but it is exactly what transpired. 

Perhaps, had he been born in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem he would have had more artistic and other opportunities available to him. 

As Lady Luck had it, he lived in Beersheva where there just happened to be a bustling mandolin youth orchestra that flourished under the steady fatherly hand of Russian-born violinist Simcha Nathanson. Therein lies yet another kindly twist of fate. 

Nathanson found that after making aliyah in the 1970s he was unable to find a job as a violin teacher. He was told he could either teach mandolin or work in some menial non-musical line of bread-winning. And so, eventually, Avital came to the instrument which he now promotes so skillfully on the international stage.

“There is a degree of duality here,” Avital says, in a somewhat more serious tone. “On the one hand, it is a magical instrument, full of secrets.” 

He says the mandolin keeps him on his toes. “It is still not very well known and it even surprises me. It still surprises me and it excites me to play it.”

Even after all these years, and umpteen accolades, Avital feels a little green around the edges. 

“When some announcer says something like, ‘Here’s the international mandolin player Avi Avital’, that composite stills sounds strange, and a bit amusing. I don’t play the mandolin. I play music. The mandolin is an instrument, which I hold in my hands.”

It may be “just” an instrument, but Avital is spearheading its rise and acceptance to the fold of bona fide means of making quality music, and not just in the classical music field. 

“There are two levels to this,” he notes, following the aforementioned bifurcated line of thought. 

“The first is personal. I have never set limits on musical genres and I have always been curious about music in general – any music, in any form or shape, as long as it is good music. I like to play Balkan, music, klezmer and Mediterranean music.”

What is a mandolin?

Then there is that strange-looking stringed instrument from which Avital manages to produce so many alluring sounds, melodies, rhythms and textures, from relatively simple-sounding folk numbers to charts that demand the highest standards of virtuosity. 

“The second level is the actual mandolin. It is an instrument which lends itself to being genre-fluid.” 

Considering its lineage Avital says that is pretty natural.

“It belongs to a large family of plucked instruments. That really stems from the origin of musical instruments, the concept of a string that is pulled tight and you pluck it with your finger or some rigid object – today it is the plastic plectrum. It came long before the bow or before wind instruments. Every musical culture in the world has plucked instruments. The sound of each musical culture is, first and foremost, plucked instruments. 

“If you think of Greek music it is the bouzouki’ in Eastern Europe it’s the balalaika; in India, it is the sitar; in Arabic music, it’s the oud and the Spanish, of course, have the guitar.” 

Avital certainly has plenty of stylistic room for maneuver.

He is also clearly making advances, including frequently commissioning new works for the mandolin. 

“The Grammy nomination was a very nice surprise,” he notes with more than a touch of understatement. 

“That was the first time, after lots of hard work and belief in what I was doing, that the mainstream world said, ‘OK, we’ve noticed what you’re doing.’ That was nice.”

That recognition helped to move Avital’s career along in the desired direction.

“Twelve years ago I couldn’t have dreamt of playing at the venues I perform at now. Actually, I could have dreamt but it would have seemed like science fiction to a lot of people,” he laughs. 

“Now I can proudly say there is not a single mainstream concert hall in the world that I haven’t played in, or will do at some stage. Back then [in pre-Grammy nomination times] it would have seemed weird to present the mandolin in places like that.”

Avital and the mandolin are well and truly on the classical – and other – musical map. And we can enjoy his polished musicianship, close to home, later this month.

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