Music history proved unkind to the classical mandolin, whose popularity declined during the nineteenth century as tastes changed and more powerful orchestral instruments were developed. In recent years, however, Avi Avital has raised the mandolin’s international profile and revitalised its repertoire, moving it from the margins to the mainstream of concert life. “I see it as my mission to fill the historical gap in the mandolin repertoire, so there will be no shortage of good compositions for the instrument in future,” he comments. His eloquent artistry, applied to everything from daredevil transcriptions of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons to new commissions, combines jaw-dropping virtuosity, scintillating musicianship and expressive intensity.
In 2010 Avital became the first mandolin player ever to be nominated for a Grammy® Award, when he was included in the “Best Instrumental Soloist” category for his recording of Avner Dorman’s Mandolin Concerto. He signed an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon in 2012 and launched his yellow label discography soon after with an album comprising his own arrangements of harpsichord and violin concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach (hailed by BBC Music Magazine for its “pure technical genius” and “hauntingly beautiful” sound). Avital signalled his commitment to new repertoire with its successor, Between Worlds (January 2014), a survey of works inspired by folk-music traditions, complete with compositions by Bartók, Bloch, Falla, Piazzolla, Tsintsadze and Villa-Lobos. (British critic Geoffrey Norris, unmoved by mandolin music throughout his long career with the Telegraph, described Between Worlds as “a kaleidoscopic United Nations of a disc, played with finesse, energy, virtuoso fingerwork and a captivating heart”.)
Released in March 2015, Vivaldi presented the eponymous composer’s Mandolin Concerto and transcriptions of other concertos, including “Summer” from The Four Seasons, together with the traditional Venetian song “La biondina in gondoleta”, sung by Juan Diego Flórez (the San Francisco Chronicle praised Avital’s “zesty showmanship” in works that “serve as vehicles for sprightly fingerwork, rhythmic buoyancy and even a touch of soul”). The widespread critical acclaim received by the album culminated in the award of a prestigious ECHO Klassik prize.
Avital Meets Avital, set for release in June 2017, contains the rich fruits of a creative dialogue between Avi Avital and his namesake the Israeli-American jazz bassist, composer and bandleader Omer Avital. “The music on this album,” notes Avi, “tells the story of a special bond: the encounter of two musicians with divergent artistic paths but a similar family history. It is a musical conversation about the sounds and meanings of home, about memory and about freedom.” Most of these works were specifically composed for the album, and draw on a range of musical traditions, including those of North Africa, the Balkans and Andalucia.
Avi Avital was born in 1978 in the desert city of Beersheba (Be’er Sheva) in southern Israel. He began playing mandolin at the age of eight and promptly joined the local youth mandolin orchestra, a remarkable ensemble founded by the Russian-born violinist Simcha Nathanson, whose charismatic teaching and use of transcribed violin pieces left an indelible impression on the young Avi. “He taught me music,” he notes. “The instrument to me is not the point.”
After studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, Avital moved to Italy and absorbed lessons about the mandolin’s historic repertoire from Ugo Orlandi at the Cesare Pollini Conservatory in Padua. He soon broke with tradition, however, in search of a personal artistic identity. Encounters with different musical traditions and genres – from bluegrass and jazz to world music – and collaborations with his mentor, the great klezmer clarinettist Giora Feidman, prepared the way for his emergence as a mandolin pioneer.
Avi Avital’s progress gathered speed in 2007 when he became the first mandolinist to win Israel’s Aviv Competition (for young musicians on the verge of a professional career), and continued with a succession of debut dates at, among other prestigious venues, New York’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, London’s Wigmore Hall, the Berlin Philharmonie, Vienna’s Konzerthaus, the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. He has also gone on to appear at the Ravenna, Salzburg, Spoleto, Tanglewood and Verbier festivals, and undertaken international tours with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (Australia), the Kölner Akademie (China), and the Venice Baroque Orchestra (Europe, Japan and North and South America).
Avital has forged close partnerships with several artists who share his openness to musical exploration, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, accordionist Ksenija Sidorova and percussionist Itamar Doari among them. Highlights of recent seasons include recitals with Esfahani at Wigmore Hall and in Germany, Austria and Switzerland; extensive Between Worlds tours of Europe, South America, Taiwan and the United States with Sidorova and Doari; and concerto dates with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, Israel Philharmonic and Mahler Chamber orchestras.
He joined Omer Avital for concerts in North America in March 2017 and is set to tour Europe with him in June, July and October 2017, including performances at Wigmore Hall, the Vienna Konzerthaus and the Athens Megaron. They will also appear together at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, where Avi is this year’s Artist in Residence. He will take part in twenty events in total, encompassing a wide range of performances, from solo recitals and duo appearances with Esfahani to a workshop session and appearances with Feidman and Kremerata Baltica – twenty perfect opportunities to celebrate his passion for the mandolin.