© Harald Hoffman/Deutsche Grammophon

Avi Avital is ready to shake things up

Avi Avital is undisputably one of the greatest mandolin players of our time. This season the charismatic Israeli Grammy winner will visit BOZAR three times, which gives him the opportunity to present a panoramic overview of his art. We met up with him at the Centre for Fine Arts to give us a preview.

Avi Avital invites you to BOZAR

How does it feel to make your debut in Belgium and particularly at BOZAR?

I’m surrounded by art, so what can be better? This is absolutely fantastic, I am excited and  looking forward to the concerts. I will come for three times this season, currently I don’t know the city that good, but I know that this place will become important in my life.

You don’t see the mandolin that often on the classical stage.

It’s not a really well known or popular instrument, but that’s just the challenge: I can offer something to the audience that they probably haven’t heard before. I believe in the concerts in BOZAR, because for most of the people it will be the first time they will hear a mandolin in the concert hall. It gives me a lot of energy to have this privilege in Belgium.

A. VIVALDI - MANDOLIN CONCERTO in C Major RV425 (3rd movement)

How did you get the idea to play this little instrument?

The way I came into contact with the mandolin was pretty random. I was eight years old and my neighbours where playing the instrument and I think I just liked the sound.  Not much later I asked my parents if I also could play this instrument. They agreed and I signed up to the local conservatory, where I had the enormous luck to play in a huge mandolin orchestra. It was such fun to play music with people of my age.

© Avi Avital/Instagram
© Avi Avital/Instagram

Where lie the origins of the instrument?

It’s a baroque instrument with origins in Italy, but the mandolin is a member of a much broader family of plucked string instruments. In every musical tradition in the world you will encounter a member of this family of instruments:  the sitar in India, the bouzouki in Greece, the balalaika in Russia, the oud in the Arabic world …  In my opinion, all these instruments have a similar sound. The mandolin is a classical instrument, but it generates an eclectic sound of different cultures. It’s fun to make music with this pallet of connotations.

And it’s this mix that inspires you?

Indeed, I’m an artist that’s always curious about all musical cultures. Listening to different types of music helps me develop my personality.  Most of my concerts are classical, but I play a lot of klezmer, Balkan, Arab music and jazz and I consider all this genres as dialects of the same language: music.

Avi Avital plays Bartók Romanian Folk Dances

In your album Between Worlds you play with the borders between different music genres.

There are a lot of composers that have, like me and my mandolin, the same ‘identity’ complex between musical genres. These are composers that took folklore music as point of departure and transformed it into classical music. The greatest example is probably Béla Bartók who collected folk music from peasants in Eastern Europe and used it as base for his work. He restructured and reharmonized the folksongs into classical music played by classical instruments.

This process was quite popular at the beginning of the twentieth century with composers like Manuel de Falla in Spain, Heitor Villa-Lobos from Brazil, Sulkhan Tsintsadze from Georgia. All these composers drew inspiration from folklore and mixed it with classical music. Playing it on the mandolin only deepens the folkloric perfume.

© Harald Hoffman/Deutsche Grammophon
© Harald Hoffman/Deutsche Grammophon

With the Four Seasons of Vivaldi, which you will play with the Venice Baroque Orchestra, you are choosing pure classical music.  

The Four Seasons by Vivaldi are really famous: everyone who comes to the concert hall will have an idea in mind of what it will sound like. Playing it on a mandolin gives the audience the opportunity to discover this music in a different way. Secretly, I hope I will be able to create the illusion that the audience discovers the piece for the first time.  

Considering that the mandolin was an extremely popular instrument in Vivaldi’s time, I believe I can underline the folkloristic character of the piece. The Four Seasons paint a postcard of Venice during the different seasons. Vivaldi describes nature with a storm, the rising water of the sea ... The tone colour of the mandolin makes this masterpiece more local, more Italian, more Venetian.

Avi Avital - Vivaldi (Trailer)

Not only the arrangement is something to explore, because there will also be a visual dimension.

Indeed, we will add a visual element, which I personally like a lot. It’s a hand shadow theater company from Tiblisi in Georgia. All the art by these wonderful people is made up of the shadows behind the screen that they create with their hands. The music will even sound more poetic!

As your third concert you will present a project with the amazing jazz pianist Omer Klein. How did you get to know him?

We got to know each other some years ago and quickly figured out we would like to do something together. The idea for this latest collaboration is to create a classical recital for mandolin and piano. A recital with cello or violin is quite a common format in classical music, but one for the mandolin is rather rare.

© Avi Avital/Instagram
© Avi Avital/Instagram

What will the recital look like?

When I met Omer some six years ago, we thought it would be a little bit of a mixture of his jazz pieces with a lot of improvisation and some of my classical repertoire. Gradually it evolved into a two part program. During the first part we will play jazz tunes that we wrote ourselves and we will also improvise a lot. In the second part I will play the Second Partita for violin solo in d minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. Between the movements Omer will give a completely improvised commentary on the Bach movements. We don’t practice it beforehand, so every time is an unique event.

That’s challenging.

Indeed, it is! We did it already four or five times and every time is different. For every improvisation Omer takes a melodic or rhymical element of the Bach score and starts developing it. What it sounds like depends on the mood, the audience or just the inspiration. Magical!

© Avi Avital/Instagram
© Avi Avital/Instagram

You mentioned that you also will improvise. Where did your learn it, considering you are a classical musician?

I didn’t learn it at the music academy, so I taught myself and threw myself in the deep end with the best improvisers. I was inspired by them and I started to develop my own lexicon and my own phrasing. You get more confident and courageous after a while, and that is fun.

Do you have a dream to work with a particular musician?

I have so many artists I would love to work with, especially singer-songwriters. I had one ultimate dream that came true in some way: I have always been a big fan of Leonard Cohen and I met his son who was the producer on his father’s last album. That album will be released and I will be on one of the tracks. An honour.

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