Avi Avital takes the mandolin into new realms

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Classical mandolinists are rare enough, but classical mandolinists who’ve also drummed in grunge bands would likely be nonexistent were it not for Avi Avital. The 35-year-old Israeli is bent on pushing his primary instrument into the spotlight in a way that hasn’t been seen since Antonio Vivaldi’s time, and he credits his love for the sound of Seattle, circa 1991, as one of the reasons why he seems to be succeeding.

“Actually, it’s a combination of things,” Avital stresses, in a telephone conversation from his home in Berlin. “But with the rhythmical part of it, when I was a teenager I had my rock phase. It was the ’90s and the news coming from Seattle—grunge music and Nirvana—was all I was listening to when I was in high school. So I started playing the drums. That was my favourite instrument in high school: I played the mandolin and I went to classical lessons, and then I had my rock band and I played the drums.…So my very little experience as a teenager with performing music had me paying attention to terms like groove and drive that are not usually taught in the music academy, necessarily, with classical music. That might have given me something when I play a rhythmical movement from Vivaldi or Bach.”

Avital has certainly got a winning way with music from the 18th century: his acclaimed Deutsche Grammophon debut, Bach, found him exploring Johann Sebastian’s music with notable élan, but the mandolinist has no plans to specialize in that repertoire. Although his upcoming Vancouver Recital Society appearance, with pianist Michael Brown, will find him performing Bach’s Partita in D Minor No. 2, the rest of his repertoire suggests that he’s a thoroughly modern musician.

Japanese composer Yasuo Kuwahara’s “Improvised Poem” for mandolin solo is apparently a tour de force of extended techniques and spontaneous creation, while Avital’s self-penned opener, Kedma, pays homage to his Moroccan Jewish roots.

“Growing up in Israel, you’re growing up in a very multicultural environment,” he explains. “So I was influenced not only by Arabic music, which was familiar to me locally, but also by the ancient Moroccan Jewish liturgical tradition. That’s what I was hearing all through my childhood, but of course some of the neighbours were from Iraq, and another friend, his parents were German, and another family was French.…Israel is a society that is constructed out of people from very different cultures—and, for the purpose of this conversation, very different musical cultures as well. The whole environment is very plural; it’s very rich. So all of this, I’m sure, has influenced my natural curiosity towards different cultures and towards different genres of music.”

And this, Avital adds, is the thinking behind his soon-to-be-released Between Worlds, which focuses on new arrangements of classical compositions inspired by folk music. Three pieces from the record—Maurice Ravel’s Vocalise—Etude en Forme de Habanera, Manuel de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Española, and Béla Bartók’s six-part Romanian Folk Dances—will be featured in Sunday’s recital; together they’ll feature lots of mandolin fireworks while providing a hint as to where Avital’s curiosity might take him in future.

“It’s kind of a panorama of my own artistic identity, if you will, or a kind of autobiography,” Avital says of his concert program. “I am myself, in 2014, dealing with the same kind of duality, with the same kind of complex identity as an artist performing both classical music and folk music. So I really wanted to correspond with composers who, in their time, were extremely modern and innovative—and to kind of elaborate on all these compositions and make them again modern in our time.

“The mandolin has always changed its shape, its form, its tuning,” he adds. “And it has so much depth, so many layers, and also a lot of different sounds and dynamics and colours that are still not very developed. The discovering element is very strong!”

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