When it comes to standard classical repertoire, mandolin players don't often get a chance to show off. There’s Vivaldi's mandolin concerto and pieces by Hummel, Beethoven and Villa-Lobos. Mozart used it to accompany the Don's serenade in Don Giovanni and Mahler incorporated it into his Seventh Symphony.
When Avi Avital arrived on the scene less than a decade ago, he set out to dispel the mandolin’s somewhat dowdy reputation. After moving from his native Israel to Italy and then Berlin, he toured with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and began playing Balkan and Klezmer music. "Between Worlds," his second album on Deutsche Grammophon, is a further effort to bridge the instrument’s classical and folk identities. It focuses on new arrangements of classical compositions inspired by folk music, including works by Bartok, Piazzolla, Falla and Monti, among others.
Avital said he wasn’t so aware of the mandolin’s folk connections until he started to travel more in recent years. “Wherever I went in the world people associated it with different kinds of folk music – not only with bluegrass that we know here from the States,” he said. “But it’s so similar to other plucked string instruments from other cultures like the balalaika and the Buzuki and the pipa in China that I really realized that for many people, they associate the Mandolin with folk music, although it is a classical music instrument.
“It made me think about my own artistic identity, doing a lot of classical music but playing also improvised music and having projects with jazz musicians and world musicians.” For his second WQXR Café Concert (watch the first one here), Avital plays "Bucimis," a traditional Bulgarian dance tune in 15/16 meter. Watch the performance:
“It’s a melody that I learned from an accordion player actually,” said Avital. “I was so captured. It has this special meter that I couldn’t put my finger on. Of course, I begged him to teach me this melody.”
The song represents one of three folk tunes on “Between Worlds,” along with a traditional Welsh melody (“Hen Ferchetan”) and a Klezmer improvisation (“Ora Bat Chaim”). They are pieces that represent “the raw material without any intervention of a classical composer,” Avital noted.
Two days after his Café Concert, Avital gave his recital debut at Carnegie Hall, an event he considers to be a landmark in his career and evidence that the mandolin is gaining a stronger foothold in classical music. “When I found myself playing classical mandolin and promoting it in the main classical halls, Carnegie, the temple of classical music, was obviously on my wish list,” he said. “It means a lot not only for me but it’s a huge milestone for this instrument that I truly believe is enjoying a nice renaissance.”
Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise