Home Culture Arts & Entertainment An ambassador of the humble, oft-overlooked mandolin

An ambassador of the humble, oft-overlooked mandolin

Avi Avital

Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital, 41, will be performing with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in May, the only Canadian engagements that have him travelling the world and playing with prestigious orchestras.

A kid from a Moroccan family who had made aliyah in the 1960s, he came from no great musical lineage. Instead, he developed his passion for music organically and chose his instrument, the humble, oft-overlooked mandolin, quite by chance.

Today he has become the ambassador for the mandolin and a driving force behind the commission of new compositions and concertos for it. He has commissioned over a hundred new pieces written specifically for the mandolin, and his performance of Giovanni Sollima’s mandolin concerto in Vancouver will be the North American premiere for a piece, he says, was written specifically for him.

Avital first picked up his neighbour’s mandolin in his Beersheba home at the age of seven. While he was physically far from the cultural, music centres in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, his hometown happened to be the location of a youth mandolin orchestra run by Russian-born violinist Simcha Nathanson.

“My neighbour played in it and when I went to see a concert, where 50 kids were on the stage, it really appealed to me as a kid,” he recalled. “My first love was born from this – having the instrument really close and being able to touch it and make noise from it.”

Firm in the knowledge that classical music could only enhance their son’s education, Avital’s parents encouraged him to take lessons at a music conservatory in Beersheba. But other than his love for the mandolin, his school years were just like any other Israeli kid.

“I went to a normal high school and majored in science, playing with the mandolin youth orchestra in my free time. It wasn’t until the Israeli military sent me a letter suggesting that I audition – a privilege reserved for promising musicians – that it occurred to me that the mandolin would become my life.”

The Israeli Defence Force selects 20 musicians from 300 applicants and gives them the opportunity to play their instrument during their military service. Avital was one of those 20, and when he completed his service he enrolled at the Jerusalem Music Academy. Later he continued his studies at the Conservatorio Cesare Pollini in Padua, Italy, with Ugo Orlandi, and it was in Europe that he launched his career.

When he began playing the mandolin professionally, Avital played arrangements of pieces written for flute or violin. “There wasn’t much written for mandolin,” he explains. “Most of the composers that we all know did not write for the mandolin and with the exception of two pieces by Vivaldi and four by Beethoven, there are very few classical pieces for the mandolin that survived the test of centuries.”

The mandolin was considered an amateur instrument by composers, who tended to stay away from it and concentrate on more complex instruments that were part of the classical music canon. Except for singular cases, it never entered the classical music tradition as a serious concert instrument. Over the years, that absence conditioned other composers and musicians to not to choose the mandolin either.

Avital realized he had some work to do to bring the mandolin to the forefront. “I felt I couldn’t call myself a mandolin player if I was playing pieces that were not composed for the mandolin. I know it is a worthy instrument for inclusion in the classical music canon, and so I started to encourage composers to write pieces for the mandolin.”

His inspiration was Andres Segovia, who had accomplished this feat on the classical guitar. A century ago the classical guitar was a humble instrument with very few pieces written for it. Then Segovia started to play guitar in serious concert halls and to commission classical guitar pieces from the greatest composers of his generation. He influenced other great guitarists to continue this path and today, says Avital, the guitar is part of every concert series and high quality repertoire.

“I was encouraged and inspired to do the same,” Avital says. “The mandolin is a beautiful instrument yet to be discovered.”

Like any great work of art, a commission of a musical piece carries a financial burden. Sometimes Avital will collaborate with several orchestras to co-commission a piece, and they share the expense with private sponsors. In the case of Sollima’s concerto, things were more personal, though.

“Sollima is a cellist, performer and composer and our first collaboration was in a festival in Italy, a mega concert dedicated to folk music with an audience of 250,000. He was the artistic director and because he knew I had a love for traditional music and improvisation, he invited me to participate. Many collaborations were born from this experience and they culminated in the mandolin concerto I asked him to write,” Avital says.

“He composed it after he really knew me and had experience performing with me. And I felt an immediate connection with the music, because it challenges me enough technically, but also uses everything I have to offer in terms of expressivity and character.”

In between his many performances and a life spent moving between hotels and different orchestras, Avital has a bigger plan in mind. “My goal is to contribute repertoire to the canon of classical music in the hope that future mandolin players will be able to play a greater repertoire. Some of those composers are terrified because it’s the first time they’ve been asked to write for the mandolin. But this is also a challenge, an opportunity to write for an instrument that doesn’t have much repertoire.”

Today, Avital, his Israeli wife and their six-year-old son live in Berlin, a city he describes as a “hub, with artists from all over the world inspiring and nurturing each other. Berlin is the heart of classical music in Europe, and that’s where you sign all the major labels. I tour the world all the time and Berlin, despite its dark history, is one of the most cosmopolitan, open-minded, liberal cities I’ve ever been to.”

Still, he’s every bit Israeli and returns home four times a year to reunite with friends and family.

“We speak Hebrew at home and you’ll find hummus in our fridge at any time,” he says. As his son approaches the age when Avital first discovered the mandolin, he is taking piano lessons and playing on a kid-sized drum set and ukulele. Avital is determined not to steer his boy in any one direction. “I wasn’t pushed ever, just encouraged to practise,” he recalls. “Making music is a flame that should be kept burning.”


Avi Avital is scheduled to play in Vancouver with the VSO and Paolo Bortolameolli at the Centennial Theatre on May 7, the Bell Performing Arts Centre on May 8 and the Orpheum Theatre on May 9. See vancouversymphony.ca for more information.