Grammy-nominated Musician Returns to Israel After Selling Out Carnegie Hall

A mandolin in Carnegie Hall? 'Five years ago I would have been skeptical,' Avi Avital says.

Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev
Avi Avital. "Violinists and pianists are burdened with the classical repertoire and technique, but as a mandolinist I pave the path while walking on it."
Avi Avital. "Violinists and pianists are burdened with the classical repertoire and technique, but as a mandolinist I pave the path while walking on it."Credit: Neda Navaee
Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev

Each time Avi Avital comes to Israel, it follows a major leap forward. This time, at last night’s concert in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art with the Israel Camerata Orchestra Jerusalem, it was after a real breakthrough: He recently recorded another album with Deutsche Grammophon, of Vivaldi — the third of his five-album contract with the acclaimed classical label — and held his second sold-out recital in three months at New York’s Carnegie Hall, in addition to recent performances at London’s Wigmore Hall.

A mandolin in Carnegie Hall? At Deutsche Grammophon? “Five years ago I would have been skeptical. Not that I didn’t believe I was capable, and I was definitely aiming in that direction; it simply took a long time and tremendous effort to get the musical establishment to finally embrace the mandolin,” Avital says.

The recording contract and the important recitals almost pale next to Avital’s 2010 Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra, for Avner Dorman’s mandolin concerto, recorded on the Naxos American Classics label with the Metropolis Ensemble.

“That’s when the doors began to open. People said maybe there’s something here that we’ve been missing.”

The story of the mandolin’s path to the mainstream of classical string studies in Israel, and from there to the international scene, has been told before. It all began with Prof. Simha Nathanson, a violin teacher who immigrated from Russia to Be’er Sheva in the 1970s. In the face of a lack of demand for violin teachers he began teaching mandolin, treating his students, as they put it, like top violinists from the famed Moscow Virtuosi orchestra.

Among the mandolinists to emerge from his instruction were the chef Yonatan Roshfeld, Shmuel Elbaz, Lev Haimovich and Tom Cohen, Alon Sariel and Jacob Reuven — and Avital, a Be’er Sheva native and Reuven’s neighbor, who followed in his footsteps without knowing anything about music. The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance opened its door to students of the strange instrument, which received significant technical reinforcement from mandolin builder Arik Kerman, who gave the instrument a much bigger, more resonant sound and a flexibility that allows for true virtuosity.

As a student, Avital entered the only competition open to mandolins, the Paul Ben-Haim Competition, and won first place. Three years later, in 2001, he founded The Three Plucked Strings, a trio that commissioned works from Israeli composers and performed abroad. Then he went to study in Italy. Now 37, he is based in Berlin, where he lives with his wife and their baby son.

A conversation with Avital about the mandolin ranges among historical styles, political and social processes, instrument technology and questions about repertory: arrangement and composition. The subject is a painful one, due to the paucity of works written for the instrument.

“Beethoven wrote four mandolin sonatas, for a girl he was in love with, and the seduction song in Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni” is played on a mandolin. A precise choice, because in its day the instrument was linked to young girls and the salon,” Avital says, adding: “The mandolin’s development was always related to demographic and political processes in Europe. The instrument was handed down from the nobility to the bourgeoisie, and from there to mandolin orchestras. A nationalist like Mussolini made it Italy’s national instrument, and in contrast the socialists on the kibbutzim turned it into an instrument identified with the Zionist revolution. Maybe that’s also because it’s not a dangerous instrument, like a violin, which has the potential for an international career and requires academic study, and is therefore liable to cause the player to leave the kibbutz.

“The mandolin was an intellectual instrument, not popular like wind instruments or klezmer music, and in Poland there were mandolin orchestras composed of Marxist intellectuals,” says Avital. “But nevertheless it resonates in the popular imagination, like many string instruments — the tar in Persia and the koto in Japan, the oud in Arab countries, the bouzouki in Greece, the charango in South America, the balalaika in Russia and the tamburitza in the Balkans. There’s something about the plucked instruments that resonates, that tugs on primeval strings.”

In last night’s concert, Avital and the Camerata were joined by another instrument not often heard in concert halls — the bayan, a Russian accordion. Avital’s contribution to the program featured arrangements of two Bach concerti for violin and orchestra.

Usually Avital includes a contemporary work in his concerts: He has commissioned over 90 pieces, many of them from Israeli composers. He recently played in Israel a work he commissioned from the British-American composer David Bruce: “He’s a genuine folklorist, it’s the fifth piece of his I have played; the work with him is many meetings, improvisation, with YouTube open, and this time with music from Africa: Both my parents are from Morocco and I searched out and listened to that music a lot. From there to Ethiopian music, and when the piece came I heard a lot of African components.”

In high school Avital played rock, in the academy in Jerusalem he played Persian music. Later he played klezmer music with clarinetist Giora Feidman — “a man I admire, a teacher and an adoptive grandfather,” as he puts it — and in the United States he played jazz with the Israeli bassist Omer Avital (“his last name also used to be Abutbul”), and lots of Balkan music: “That’s the advantage of playing mandolin. Violinists and pianists are burdened with Rubinstein and Stern and the whole classical repertoire and technique, and as a mandolinist I pave the path while walking on it.”

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