Avi Avital: The Symbol of Mandolin

photo: Harald Hoffmann/ DG

Avi Avital is someone who speaks music fluently. Bringing new musical experiences throughout his everyday life, as a musician, he has taken on different music’s styles, genres, and traditions as its different dialects. His drive, that both support and challenge him, is a tool in his hands – a mandolin. Mandolin in classical music context is still an underdog and this notion has pushed Avital into a journey beyond his limits, bringing the art and musical tradition of mandolin in a new light for the classical music world to see. Today he is the first mandolin soloist to be nominated for a Grammy, to be an exclusive Deutsche Grammophone artist, and a concert soloist, performing with such orchestras as the BBC Symphony, Chicago Symphony, and Deutsche Symphonie. In the interview, world-acclaimed mandolinist Avi Avital shares his take on the mandolin tradition, its ever changing reputation in comparison with classical music, and the meaning success holds in his life.


I saw that even in this year marked with pandemic you managed to tour in Europe. Are you concerting now?

I think in between the first lockdown and the current situation, when we‘re on the verge of locking down again, I played quite a bit. Some of the concerts were according to my this years schedule, but most of them were improvised last minute engagements – sometimes I would replace the players that couldn’t travel, or get new concert ideas and invites. Obviously all the touring went only in Europe, but still, I have to say, that it was a bit crazy. Now in few days I am going to Holland for another short to Holland if the situation doesn’t change until that time.

This year is quite an unique period and opportunity. Did you, as a musician, knew how you want to use this time, what do you want to focus on?

This year was ups and downs for everyone. But I have to admit that at the beginning of first lockdown, I felt relieved. Before the pandemic I was talking to my managers about my wish to take a break for a few months when I would have a clear schedule. I felt the need to go back to practicing, learning new repertoire, and resting from my very intense concert schedule. Then we were planning to make this break in the season 2022-2023, because everything before that was pre-booked. And then when the pandemic came, in my mind I already knew what I want to do with this time. I did learn many things that I wanted to learn – a lot of new repertoire, gained a new quality in my practice. There was no stress in practice, I was just bettering the building blocks of my technique, and going back to the foundations – for months I played scales and etudes, then discovered Greek music repertoire. I absolutely enjoyed it, since I didn’t have an opportunity to do that in the last few years. It was a good time for me.

How do you form a new repertoire? There are a lot of contemporary music commissions as well as traditional music pieces.

There are a lot of different elements in my music making. As you mentioned, one of them is a contemporary music. From my years in the academy, I am used to commission new pieces. There is a huge time gap in the mandolin repertoire, since for centuries composers didn’t write for this instrument. This is something that I want to change for this century. Another element that I like to explore is jazz music and traditional folk music. It allows to embrace the creative parts and improvisation for me as a performer.

Do you notice that contemporary composers have a different approach in how do they understand mandolin as an instrument?

Definitely. To compare, when a composer today gets a commission to write a violin concerto, he or she can analyze all the historical canon of violin concertos, composed by Mozart, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. Then they try to voice their continuation of this canon – on one hand, it is conditioning that puts pressure, on the other hand, you have some material and rules to rely on. When I commission a mandolin concerto for a contemporary composer, nothing of that exists. Therefore all new mandolin concertos are unconditioned by the tradition, it is a complete tabula rasa. What I notice is that when composers start to write, they get really scared of it, but the results are always interesting for me, they bring out the most creative, inventive, original sides of the composer as well as the instrument. The new pieces surprises me, many times I am sure they are impossible to play on mandolin, but after some practicing I realize that it is just a new expression of this instrument. I often have to invent new playing techniques to be able to perform these pieces.

How is it different in comparison with previous view of the mandolin?

Throughout the history, mandolin was popular in different periods, different places for different things. But essentially it was always an amateur instrument, used in academic music as only a symbol of some sorts. Since in 18-19th centuries it was a salon instrument in Vienna and Prague – it was known to be very expensive, delicate, well decorated instrument that the young wealthy maidens were learning to play. Therefore composers used mandolin in order to illustrate this symbol. One of the most famous mandolin moments in classical music tradition is in W. A. Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Mozart used mandolin as accompaniment instrument in a scene when Don Giovanni is tempting a young beautiful girl to come to the window and serenade her. From the symbol of mandolin we can understand that his intentions are not so innocent and that he is targeting a wealthy aristocrat lady of that time. Therefore before commissioning a piece for mandolin today, I often ask composers what this instrument symbolizes to them. You would be surprised to hear how many different answers I receive from one composer to another.

Do you have an answer to this question yourself?

No – that is the beauty of mandolin, it is the symbol of many things. If looking broader at the family of plucked string instruments you’ll find that the main melodic instrument is the plucked string instrument in every musical culture – tanpura in India, balalaika in Russia, bouzouki in Greece, charango in South America, qanun in Arabic, kora in Africa, kanklės in Baltics, and so on. Therefore the sound of plucked instrument is very familiar to every musical culture. In a way it makes mandolin a chameleon – when I play Rachmaninov, mandolin sounds very Russian, when I play Vivaldi or Scarlatti – it sounds Italian, and so on. All these references of symbols creates a whole new layer of artistic opportunity. Also, since it is not very strictly defined, it always reminds something close for the listener. I like to use that in creating my interpretations.

Is there a mandolin tradition in Israel?

Yes and no. It was somewhat of a mandolin trend, that came from the 1930s kibbutz commune, socialist pioneers from Eastern or Central Europe, which at the time were very popular in Israel. In every kibbutz commune there was a mandolin orchestra. At the time there was no opportunities to enjoy music in other ways – if you wanted to listen a some kind of Rossini aria, you couldn’t stream or download it, you had to play it yourself. Since mandolin was more cheap and simple instrument, many people could play different pieces and in this way enjoy classical music together. So in the first half of 20th century it was a really popular amateur platform all over the world.

Do you have a personal connection with this tradition?

In a way, I really benefited from the remains of this tradition. Even though I grew up not in a kibbutz commune, but in a city, there were several mandolin orchestras founded. My parents came from Morocco and classical music wasn’t part of their culture. They believed it was good to educate kids to play classical music, but they didn’t had the mindset where violin or piano was a more acceptable instrument than mandolin – for them they all were the same. I was lucky to be playing in an amazing youth mandolin orchestra led by Russian immigrant Simcha Nathanson – it was my door into classical music.

Was the mandolin orchestra led by violinist?

Exactly, back in Saint Petersburg Simcha Nathanson was a great virtuoso violinist and professor. He came to Israel in 1970s, when soviet union allowed some Jewish people to immigrate to Israel. Here he looked for a job as a violin professor, but there was no opportunities for him. But in conservatory they had many mandolins that they didn’t know what to do with, so instead of changing professions, he decided to teach himself to play mandolin and founded a mandolin orchestra. Violin and mandolin has the same tuning, so the left hand is almost identical in both instruments, which made things easier for him. Simcha Nathanson was a great tough professor and he wasn’t conditioned to think of mandolin less than of a violin. And I think while we were playing mandolins, in his head we were all holding violins. He would even hold a pick really differently – as one would hold a bow. Today around the world I meet mandolinists that hold a pick strangely and I know that they are his students.

You reached all the milestones that most musicians dream of – Grammy nomination, Carnegie hall, Deutsche Gramophone contract. What meaning did it have before you had success, and afterwards?

Success per se wasn’t my drive, I wanted to be a concerting mandolinist. But after I finished my education in academy, I had to face harsh reality that no-one was waiting for a mandolin player. No promoter in the world was sitting in his office, thinking that he must have a mandolin recital for next season. No orchestra or conductor were planning to have a mandolin player as a soloist. So the only way was to have these milestones, I needed them to be able to perform. If Deutsche Gramophone say that mandolin is a good instrument, people will come to listen. I worked really hard on this momentum to really shout to the world – this is mandolin! It’s cool! It is not lesser than other instruments! But there is a duality and, on the other hand, I really used the ‘exotic’ image of mandolin for my advantage. It’s nice to be able to propose something that has never been heard in a classical music hall or together with classical orchestra before. And in any way, every milestone took lots of consistent and hard work. And afterwards, one milestone inspires another – Grammy nomination led to my Deutsche Gramophone contract, which opened an opportunity to perform in Carnegie Hall. I would say my first performance in Carnegie Hall was huge for me, because it was also the first mandolin recital in the hall. Now after I performed there several times, it feels more like a natural part of my life and career, it doesn’t feel strange anymore.

In this way you became a representative of mandolin in the world of classical music. How do you want mandolin to be perceived in the future?

This is a complex question, because my cultural baggage has not much to do with the mandolin – I come from Moroccan family, I studied with violinist and for a long time I played only violin repertoire. Throughout my life I also distanced myself from the community of mandolin players. I noticed that in Europe mandolin is a niche instrument that is content in its own community – mandolinists were playing only compositions of other mandolinists, they were only performing in mandolin festivals, where the audience were also mandolinists. I believe that it was a reason why for years mandolin didn’t had a reputation of a concert instrument. I wanted to change it. Throughout this perspective, I didn’t see myself that much as a mandolin player, but a musician. Mandolin is only a tool for me to give the most amazing concert experience that I can possibly give to the audiences. Therefore I don’t think I am waving the flags of mandolin players.

In the mean time I managed to break from this confined community of violin mandolin players into main stream. I hope this can be an example for other mandolin players, that this is possible, that other audiences also love listening to mandolin playing. I really hope that with this generation we can in a way change the history of this instrument.

How do you manage all the different genres in your repertoire?

For me, music is the language that I speak, and genres are the dialects. They are just different ways to generate musical experience to the listener. Also I only play the genres I am familiar with – Israel music, Russian music, eastern music, Moroccan music, jazz. And that’s all because of the people that I knew, who introduced me to these genres. The environment I grew up was very multicultural environment . This is a part of me – I really feel like music drives me, not a specific genre.

What is the most important for you in the performance?

My role as a musician is very clear to me. It is to generate an experience to the listener. I feel excitement and the responsibility, when I know that the audience had dedicated their free evening, bought a ticket, dressed nicely, booked a babysitter – all to treat themselves with art. I know there is a lot of competition for one evening, so I love these people, I connect with them, I really appreciate that they comes to listen. And it’s my responsibility to offer them something exceptional, so I go, I practice, I master my art for the audience. I feel very much connected to my role and identity as a performer – the one who serves people with his experience. I play for the people, its not that people come to listen to me. It’s another way around.

How is the experience different when you improvise on stage?

My formal education was classical music, so I wasn’t taught to improvise. My first experiences of improvising and playing jazz music were with the Persian Iranian music group in Jerusalem. I think I was accepted just because I could organize really well and other group members were hectic. They taught me to improvise, even I was quite shy with it. I had to learn that some improvisational elements or ornaments were Turkish or Iranian – understand the most delicate nuances of a certain language or dialect – of a certain genre of music. Improvising is just an experience, there is not much that you can really learn. It takes courage to improvise on stage and you have to allow yourself to make mistakes.

You also collaborate with many musicians from different backgrounds. What helps you to find a middle ground?

Collaborating with others is the most inspiring, encouraging experience. I am a learner and I love to learn from other musicians that always bring a different approach – they open my eyes to a new way to perform or experience music. One collaboration that stands out was with the jazz bass player Omer Avital. We share a lot in common – not only identical last name, but also cultural background. His parents were too form Morocco and he grew up in Israel in the 1980s. Later on our education and careers went in different ways – he is a jazz player and I am a classical music player. It was absolutely fascinating to work with someone, who has the same cultural baggage and different approach to music. We learned and we still learn a lot from each other. Our project Avital meets Avital was really special to me – it came out as an album in the year 2017 and we continue touring this project.

What does it take for you to be a musician in your everyday life?

One of my teacher have said that being a musician is not a profession, but a way  of life. I really relate to it, because there are no boundaries between who I am and what I do, my experience of life is connected with music. Before the pandemic I was touring a lot, playing almost hundred concerts per year, being on the road almost throughout of the year. And during the pandemic music was never gone from my life.

Do you have any exciting future projects?

My new album is coming out in November 13n, called “The Art of Mandolin”. It is my sixth album with Deutsche Grammophone and for the first time I am playing only the music that was originally composed for mandolin. It’s all mandolin compositions by Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Beethoven and contemporary composers in this album. This album kept me busy during the lockdown, I had to edit, choose details, make the photos. For the last months of 2020, I hope to explore writing music. I wrote a couple of things for jazz project Avital meets Avital and composing, I I would like to explore my creative side and do more of that. We will see what happens!

Thank you for the conversation!

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