When you think mandolin, bluegrass pickers and old-timey music frequently comes to mind – Bill Monroe, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas or Chris Thile. But when Avi Avital sat down to play in the WQXR Café, the sounds of a Bach cello suite filled the air. Then came the strong mournful strains of Ernest Bloch's Nigun, a variation on an ancient Hebrew melody written for the violin.
For self-identified traditionalists of either camp – classical music or the mandolin – it's a bit of a visual and aural shock to the system. But consider that the mandolin has long had a place in classical music, from Vivaldi's concertos to music by Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and Schoenberg, among other composers. And Avital is no traditionalist.
Born in 1978 in Beersheba, a town in southern Israel, Avital is the son of Moroccan parents who immigrated to the country in the 1960s. At age eight, he heard a neighbor play the mandolin and soon convinced his mother to sign him up for lessons. His first teacher was Simcha Nathanson, a Soviet violinist who had a second career as a mandolin instructor in Israel. He started a youth mandolin orchestra which, by the time Avital joined, was 40 members strong and had two recordings to its name.
“This bizarre story of a violin teacher coming to a little town in the 1970s, starting a mandolin orchestra and teaching the mandolin was always kind of an advantage for me,” said Avital. “We never looked at the mandolin as just a mandolin so we never thought of it as a limited instrument.”
But after Avital graduated from the Jerusalem Music Academy, he realized that needed to expand his horizons. “I asked myself, ‘can I call myself a mandolinist without really going to Italy and searching for the origins and playing some of the original repertoire and looking into the instrument’s history?’”
After military service, Avital headed to Italy, where he studied with Ugo Orlandi at the Conservatorio Cesare Pollini of Padova. Avital went back to basics, learning "all the techniques and original repertoire" and even switching from an Israeli-made instrument to an Italian one.
But a pure focus on the Baroque mandolin repertoire wasn’t going to satisfy Avital either. He knew that to build a career for himself he’d need to branch out. He eventually wound up in Berlin, absorbing its eclectic arts scene while splitting his time between concertos with orchestras, recitals and collaborations like the Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project. In 2006, he commissioned Avner Dorman's Mandolin Concerto, which was nominated for a Grammy Award and has evolved into his signature work.
This month, he releases his debut on Deutsche Grammophon, an unusual recording of transcriptions of Bach's concertos for violin, flute and oboe.
“The nice thing about being a mandolin player is the path I'm walking on is being constructed while I walk on it,” said Avital. “I’m trying a lot of different styles. I enjoy very much playing with orchestras. I have a jazz project with [bassist] Omer Avital and some other jazz players. I have a Balkan trio with accordion and percussion here in New York. I’m trying to keep everything very wide.”
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Production & Text: Brian Wise