By Sigurd Neubauer
Avi Avital is on an ambitious mission: to restore the mandolin back into the classical music repertoire. The Israeli musician, who has commissioned over 100 pieces for the instrument recently performed one of them, the Concerto for Mandolin and Strings by Avner Dorman, during a U.S. tour with Academy of St Martin in the Fields. He also performed Johan Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Violin Concerto No. 1, which Avital has arranged for the mandolin.
Avital’s tour with Academy of St Martin in the Fields will continue this summer in the UK and Germany, he adds.
Avital is one the world’s leading mandolinist whose music straddles the worlds of classical music, folklore, klezmer and even Jazz. He was even nominated for a Grammy in 2010 for Instrumental Soloist Performance for his recording of Dormans Mandolin Concerto while at the same time enjoying a decade-long artistic collaboration with Deutsche Grammophon.
While Avital did not come from a musical family, “my parents saw a value in children playing musical instruments,” he recalls describing how he found an “immediate connection” to the mandolin when he was three years old. His sister played the harp.
One of his childhood neighbors in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba played the mandolin at a local youth orchestra. At the time, Avital never envisioned that he would eventually become a professional musician as he simply enjoyed the artform, “especially during high school when he played day and night.”
While the Israeli musician attributes his success to having “great teachers,” he does acknowledge, with a laugh, that he also has “some talent,” At the same time, humility is a value that Avital emulates as he expresses gratitude for the success he’s found in his career.
Returning to the subject of his life’s mission, Avital explains that “throughout history, not a lot of composers from the classical canon composed for the mandolin simply because they didn’t consider it an orchestral instrument.”
I have a responsibility towards my audiences to ensure that I provide a worthy concert experience for them
The mandolin, he explains, “was a popular instrument” in the same fashion as the guitar and the ukulele are today. “The mandolin was a salon instrument for amateur musicians. It is an easy instrument to play on an amateur level,” he asserts, then quips:
“This blessing is also why the instrument didn’t develop like other classical instruments as composers such as Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Robert Schuman (1810-1856), and Bach, did not compose for the mandolin.”
At the same time, “this is a curse of history that I am finally turning the wheels around on,” Avital says in reference to his life’s mission to reintegrate the instrument that he loves into the repertoire of classical music.
He’s doing just that by both commissioning living composers to write for the mandolin as well as interpreting music from the classical canon for mandolin.
At the same time, Avital prefaces that “not every composition sounds good on the mandolin.”
“When I adopt music from Bach or other composers for the mandolin, I have to ask myself whether by playing it on the instrument I add something new or of value.”
“Otherwise,” he retorts, “why shouldn’t people hear the piece in its original form?”
For Avital, being a musician is about providing his audience with a new experience. “I have a responsibility towards my audiences to ensure that I provide a worthy concert experience for them.”
By “worthy,” he means that it should be either “thought provoking,” or even “spiritual,” especially given at a time when “everyone is just ‘two clicks away’ from accessing any music of their choice in the world.”
Because of this, there is a need to ensure that a concert experience is different from what one can enjoy at home. “I offer something new, which did not exist before by either rearranging known compositions – such as the Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi (1678 -1741) – or by architecting the whole concert experience, which includes drawing on contrasts between the classical and folklore musical genres.”
Self-awareness is important for Avital. “If I don’t believe that this piece offers a fresh listening experience or something valuable to the audience, I won’t perform it.”
He describes his recent tour with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields “as a moment of joy,” especially given that he’s admired the chamber orchestra ever since growing up. “I had its CD on my shelf growing up. It’s one of the best orchestras in the world.”
Collaborating with the orchestra is “quite amazing as it is nourishing and exciting,” he explains, but it also comes with great “satisfaction because I have developed into a musician of its league while the orchestra at the same time appreciates my artistry.”
Returning to the Concerto for Mandolin and Strings, which Avital commissioned from Dorman in 2006, the Israeli describes it as “a building block for the restoration of the mandolin as a major instrument to enter the canon of classical music.” He’s performed it extensively ever since, he adds.
Before commissioning composers “to write good music for the mandolin,” Avital always asks what the instrument means to them and what associations they have for it.
“It is incredible what they say,” he explains, while referencing how each of the composers respond differently. “Some have said that the mandolin sounds like a music box.” Others, such as British composer David Bruce described it as looking like the “gold of the sun.” And, an unnamed American composing within the ‘BlueGrass’ genre said it sounds like the Middle Eastern musical instrument known as the Oud, while others have said it represents Italian film music.
“All of these answers are great,” Avital says, then points out with visible passion and conviction: “this is why the mandolin is such a great instrument.”
Once the composer has answered what he associates with the instrument, he than composes a piece based on that association, the Israeli explains. “I want it to be their work.”
“It is my life’s mission to create a critical mass of high-quality works for the mandolin. So, when you look at it in 100 years, there it is.”
Avital is a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and the Conservatorio Cesare Pollini in Padua with Ugo Orlandi.