New Classical Tracks: An Instrument Between Worlds

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
March 26, 2014

St. Paul, Minn. — Avi Avital - Between Worlds (Deutsche Grammophon B0019578)

Avi Avital's second recording for Deutsche Grammophon is titled Between Worlds. The title is not only an indication of the style of music you'll hear on this new release, it's also a reflection of Avi's approach to the mandolin.

"I was born and raised in Be-er Sheva, the southern part of Israel," he says. "One of my neighbors upstairs played the mandolin and as a kid, I used to listen to him playing and really fell in love with the instrument. Then I asked my parents if I could start studying in the local conservatory.

"My first teacher emigrated from St. Petersburg in the '70s and he was mainly a violin teacher. He actually applied for a job at the conservatory as a violin teacher but they told him they didn't have a position for another violin teacher, but if he wanted to work at the conservatory, he could start a mandolin class. So he did. He never thought of the mandolin as a limited instrument. Maybe because he was a violin teacher, he always taught us mandolin but he had in his hand the violin, which for me was a great advantage."

Avi's next great experience happened when he traveled to Italy to continue his studies. "That was a very interesting personal experiment because when I went to Italy, I went already after I'd done my degree at the Music Academy of Jerusalem and I won a lot of competitions and I'd started to perform all over the world," he says. "But nevertheless I wanted to study with a mandolin professor in Italy. And there I found the most known mandolin professor in Padua Conservatory, but of course he looked at the mandolin I was playing and the way I was playing and he said, 'No, no, no.' He said, 'I cannot teach you that, you have to study from scratch, from the beginning, the traditional repertoire, the traditional technique.' And it took a lot of effort at the beginning to put my ego aside and to tell myself you have the opportunity here to learn something new. And I remember for the first half of year I played scales, like I'm just beginning to play the mandolin. But it was an opportunity to press the 'pause' button and learn something new and be very open to learn things from different people, which I use as one of my values in life, absolutely."

On his latest release, Between Worlds, all of the composers share one thing in common — each was inspired by folk or traditional music. The recording opens with a piece titled, "Sachidao." Avi says it really sets the mood for the entire disc. "Sulkan Tchindzade, he's a Georgian composer who took Georgian folk tunes and rearranged them for string quartet originally," he recalls. "We added mandolin, of course, and some percussionists to spice it up a little bit. I was introduced to [Tchindzade's] music on a trip I had to the capital city of Georgia. It starts with a kind of improvisation and then the percussion comes in. It's a very upbeat piece — really, you cannot put your finger on whether it's chamber music or folk music."

There's one piece on this recording that's so popular you may recognize it right away. However, Avi says his arrangement of Vittorio Monti's "Csardas," gives it a more authentic feel. "This is the only piece on the album that is originally written for the mandolin," he says. "That's no surprise for anyone who knows that Monti himself was originally a mandolin player. He actually even published a little method book for mandolin players in France. When I looked at the original score, I was astonished because I myself had no idea that he was composing that originally for the mandolin. Vittorio Monti wasn't Hungarian at all. He was an Italian composer, a Neapolitan composer who wrote Hungarian music. So I had to question myself, do I play it as a Hungarian or as an Italian? And the fact that there is no solution and there is no right answer for this question is what makes it, I think, interesting."

Bela Bartók was Hungarian, and one of the most significant composers of the 20th century, who went into villages all across the Balkans collecting folk tunes to include in his music. Avi Avital teams up with the Chamber Academy Potsdam to recreate Bartók's vision for the Six Romanian Folk Dances. "I chose as a starting point an arrangement that Bartók himself did for chamber orchestra," Avital says. "I just liked something about the power of the strings there. And really half of the day in the studio we practiced how we played like folk musicians who don't care about necessarily a nice and round sound but to really, like, play out. Even if the string buzzes, that's fine because this is how you play when there's a dance party in the village."

Since he first heard the strains of the mandolin in the upstairs apartment in southern Israel, Avi Avital has been excited about its possibilities. As you'll hear on his latest recording, Between Worlds, those possibilities are endless.

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