Life & Culture

The Israeli musician who makes the mandolin sing

Israeli musician Avi Avital found fame with an unusual stringed instrument with a rich Jewish history


If you want to become a professional classical musician, you might choose violin or piano, cello or flute. Not so for Avi Avital. In the face of all the voices telling him to do otherwise, the Israeli musician chose the humble mandolin.

Had he picked violin, there would have been countless competitions for him to showcase his young talent, an extensive repertoire with which to flex his bow, and virtuosos for him to follow. The challenge presented by the mandolin, however, would prove the making of him.

“That was my fuel for the early stages of my career,” says Avital, who now lives in Hamburg.

“There was no path for a mandolin player who wants to do it professionally. No concert organiser was sitting in the office saying ‘I need a mandolin in my season.’ So I had to carve my own path and be very creative, sincere and proactive. And that became my drive.”

When he dreamt of being signed to a major label, fellow musicians scoffed that Deutsche Grammophon would never take a mandolin player. “I was never offended,” says Avital. “It was just, ‘OK, now I have a challenge.’”

And he succeeded. In 2007, he became the first mandolinist to win Israel’s Aviv Competition for young musicians embarking on a professional career, kickstarting a whirlwind of concerts with leading orchestras at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall and Berlin Philharmonie.

He was the first mandolin player to win a classical Grammy, and in 2012 he realised his dream when he signed to Deutsche Grammophon. “That was the turning point of my career,” he says.

Having grown up with the traditional music of his Moroccan-Jewish parents in Beersheba, Avital picked up the mandolin aged eight and was first introduced to classical music at the local youth mandolin orchestra — and not just the likes of Mozart and Chopin, but to folk songs from around the world.

He would later study at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, and learn the instrument’s historic repertoire at the Cesare Pollini Conservatory.

Avital credits his unconventional education with its ethos of music-making with “no right and wrong” for defining his role as a musician. The “curiosity” instilled in him as a child is still there today, he says.

That approach, combined with the mandolin’s versatility (“it’s such a chameleon!” he enthuses), gave him flexibility and paved the way for a fearlessly unrestrained path involving various genres from classical to bluegrass and jazz.

The instrument also has a rich Jewish history, its popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries leading to a ubiquity of mandolin clubs across eastern Europe and in North American Jewish immigrant communities.

Avital himself became “hooked” on klezmer and improvisation at 24, with the help of clarinettist and “king of Klezmer” Giora Feidman who took him on tour around Europe playing in his band.

“It’s not the kind of music that my Moroccan grandmother listened to,” he laughs. “But that was my link to playing Jewish music.”

Later, his Jewish roots resurfaced in his fusion project with bassist Omer Avital, a fellow Moroccan-Jew, on their joint album Avital Meets Avital.

True to his intention to be proactive and creative — and since there were few works written for the mandoli n — he decided to write his own arrangements of famous pieces, such as Mozart’s piano sonatas and Bach’s violin concertos.

“These arrangements are just beautiful pieces of music I was dying to play,” he explains.

Some, he says with a grin that reveals his pride, are “impossible” to play on mandolin, so he worked to make them possible.

His arrangement of Bach’s D Minor Concerto for harpsichord was a musical feat in converting the baroque keyboard to the wildly different mandolin. “I really love the music, so I figured out a way,” he shrugs.

Then there’s the virtuosic Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saëns, which Avital “conquered” most recently and played at London’s Wigmore Hall in April.

He exhales with relief at having managed to rearrange this challenging piece, originally written for violin and hard enough on that instrument.

“It was like a little Everest to climb. The music is beautiful and gleeful, but it was technically very difficult to make it work on a mandolin. I’m so happy I finally made it and it’s now part of my repertoire.”

Avital has done his share of shaking things up, for example when he introduced the combination of the accordion and the mandolin, uniting both instruments’ folky characters.

“It’s both coming from my curiosity, my wanting to present to people something that they’ve maybe never experienced, and working with the associations that the mandolin brings.”

Though both instruments are classical, he says, they are also associated with folk music — from as far and wide as Italy, Argentina and Eastern Europe. “They have this ability to travel, and how people associate the sound brings a whole layer of metaphoric possibilities in the recital experience.”

He has also had more than 100 compositions written for him, including 15 concertos, one of which, Three Sisters composed by Anna Clyne, will be premiered at St Martin-in-the-Fields next month.

Avital may have become the ultimate champion for the mandolin, but this is just a side effect of the “survival mechanism” he needed to reach his ambitions. He knew that if he wanted an international career, he would have to persuade everyone of how wonderful the mandolin is, not least the conductors and orchestra directors.

“I truly think everyone should discover [the mandolin], and I feel so lucky that this is the instrument I play as it fits my character,” he says.

“At the same time, my commitment is to making music and giving this to other people with whatever tool I have in my hands. And God put a mandolin in my hands.”

Avi Avital performs the UK premiere of Anna Clyne’s ‘Three Sisters’ at St Martin-in-the-Fields (London) on July 11.

His album, featuring mandolin concertos by Hummel, Bach, Barbela, Paisiello and Vivaldi, will be released on November 17.

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