By Sigurd Neubauer
He’s one of the leading contemporary mandolinists in the world today. For Avi Avital, it is not simply about returning the mandolin to its rightful place within the classical music repertoire, but he’s also passionate about strengthening musical collaborations across genres.
In 2022, for instance, the Israeli artist established the Between Worlds Ensemble, which is dedicated to exploring different genres, cultures, and musical worlds. Avital, along with his colleagues, are all classically trained musicians who are equally at home in the non-classical repertoire. The idea for this ensemble has its origins in Avital’s album “Between Worlds”, which he released in 2014, featuring compositions by Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Antonin Dvorák (1844-1904) as well as Jewish music and folk tunes.
“The pieces that we perform are either classical music inspired by folklore,” Avital says, pointing specifically to the compositions of Bartók and Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). “They composed classical music influenced and inspired by Hungarian and Spanish folklore, respectively.”
Folklore is often reminiscent of classical music, which is why the Ensemble wanted to demonstrate that both varieties of music are often intertwined, he adds.
In a collaboration with the celebrated Spanish flamenco dancer and singer Marina Heredia, the men’s choir of Ensemble Rustavi and singer Alessia Tondo the Between Worlds Ensemble starred in a three-part residency at the Boulez Saal Berlin between November 2022 and April 2023.
There, based on the topics “Iberia,”“Black Sea” and “Italy”, the ensemble performed music from the Iberian Peninsula, moving to the regions of Georgia, Turkey and Romania, and ending their musical journey in Italy, performing traditional tunes and songs among other works.
“No one can do the preservation of the unique musical style of the Iberian Peninsula better than Heredia, ” Avital explains, but quips: “What she’s capable of is the opposite of what we do,” a reference he’s making to flamenco dances. “But that’s why our collaboration has been so magical.”
The concert’s themes centered on a spectrum between folk, traditional and written music.
Avital is passionate about promoting the mandolin. Photo credit: Deutsche Grammophon
In 2011, Avital woke up to the surprising news: he had been nominated for the Grammy Awards as Best Solo Artist under the Classical category
“On one hand, the mandolin is an Italian baroque instrument, but on the other, it is also used for American Bluegrass music and for Brazilian folk.”
There’s also a universality to the pluck instruments “as they can be found in practically every musical culture,” he emphasizes, pointing out, of course, that the mandolin is one.
Because Avital’s life mission is to promote the mandolin, which we have covered in a separate Man & Culture profile, he’s eager to point out that the instruments enjoys a duality built for both classical and folk music.
“I have performed music from the Balkans, Jazz and Klezmer on it,” Avital explains adding that he relishes in his ability to collaborate across genres. “I have grown accustomed to genres fluidity,” Avital says in reference to the wide range of music that performs.
Throughout his career, Avital is constantly pushing for the inclusion of the mandolin, including through his long-standing artistic partnership with Deutsche Grammophon “who has been a terrific partner to work with.”
“The company has fully embraced the mandolin, giving it the full legitimacy that the instrument deserves. I am very grateful for the freedom the company has given me to record music for mandolin from all musical genres,” he adds.
Through his musical advocacy for the instrument, Avital is widely considered to be an ambassador for the mandolin because he took a proactive approach to promoting the instrument from childhood onwards.
His efforts have since been recognized.
In 2011, for instance, the Israeli was nominated for a Grammy as Best Solo Artist under the Classical category for his recording of Avner Dorman’s Mandolin Concerto.
“It was a huge recognition for the mandolin,” Avital explains.
Next, he traveled to Los Angeles, California, where he was in the audience with “the best musicians in the world. We all spoke the same language of music just in different dialects,” Avital says, describing the experience as “a wonderful one I often perform with all of the best musicians in the world.”
Japanese pianist Michiko Yoshida and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra were also nominated that year. “I was the underdog with all of the big stars,” he recalls, “but it was wonderful to be there and to be recognized for my artistry.”
‘The mandolin maker’
Avital enjoys a long-standing professional partnership with Arik Kerman, 86, “who is a pioneer in his own way. Kerman had a similar vision for bringing the mandolin to the centerstage for classical music,” Avital says, explaining that he’s used Kerman’s instruments for the past 24 years.
“Kerman wanted to create an instrument that was loud enough to be heard across a concert hall,” Avital says, while adding with obvious enthusiasm that “he has two instruments that he wants me to try out once I return to Israel.”
Sharing an anecdote about the long-way Kerman has come on his way to be recognized as one of the world’s leading craftsmen within his field, Avital reveals that throughout Kerman’s long career, he purchased the best wood from instrument dealers in Germany. “For 20 years, he told them that he was making violas as he was afraid that if he told them that it was for mandolins, he would receive inferior quality wood. Now, everyone has a good laugh about it,” the mandolinist per excellence exudes with obvious pride.
Kerman wanted to create an instrument that was loud enough to be heard across a concert hall: Avital