Grammy-nominated mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital has performed on the world’s most prestigious stages, from Carnegie Hall in New York to the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing.
ISRAEL21c caught up with Avital via Skype during a multicity Irish tour in April – and we do mean “caught,” as the musician spends half the year rushing from one city to another for performances. His May itinerary included concerts in California, several German cities, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Salisbury (UK) and Lancut (Poland).
Despite his frenetic concert schedule, Avital’s mandolin-plucking is suffused with extraordinary energy, punctuated by a dazzling smile beneath his mop of dark hair.
“A lot of people come to me backstage and are concerned that I must be very tired,” he tells ISRAEL21c with a laugh. “But concerts always energize me. This is an energy that comes from inside. I’m very much attached to what I do spiritually. With all my being, I love it and I feel how important it is, and I can’t wait for the moment to go onstage. I would be happy to perform every night.”
In 2010, the Beersheva native became the first mandolin player to receive a Grammy nomination for best instrumental soloist. He has won numerous competitions and awards, and recently released his third album, Vivaldi, recorded with the Venice Baroque Orchestra.
The mandolin is not a usual instrument for children to choose, nor is the Negev city of Beersheva the usual breeding ground for world-class Israeli musicians, who tend to grow up closer to the cultural epicenter of Tel Aviv.
Avital and his two sisters were encouraged by their Moroccan immigrant parents to appreciate Moroccan, French, Israeli and even classical music.
Avital, now 37, became interested in the Italian stringed instrument at the age of eight, because one of his neighbors played in a local youth mandolin orchestra that still exists at the city’s Samuel Rubin Music Conservatory.
As he studied under the youth orchestra’s founder, Russian-born violinist Simcha Nathanson, young Avital learned that the mandolin originated in 1700s Italy, another in a long line of plucked-string instruments common to musical traditions since biblical accounts of the very first civilizations. Arabia has its oud, Greece has its balalaika, China has its pipa, and so on.
“When I go to different parts of the world, the mandolin brings out cultural links and associations everywhere,” says Avital. “When you play an Italian tune, the mandolin sounds Italian, a Russian tune sounds very Russian, and an American tune sounds very bluegrass. The mandolin has a built-in chameleon quality.”
In Beersheva, he did not have access to teachers trained specifically on the mandolin, and he has come to consider that an advantage. “There was something about the isolation that helped,” he says. “We were kind of cocooned in the youth orchestra, lucky enough to have unique teachers who helped me develop a repertoire and technique that I would not have developed if I’d started with a mandolin teacher immediately.”
Designated an outstanding musician by the army, Avital was given a desk job in Jerusalem so that he could study at the Jerusalem Academy of Music during his three years of service. He had the opportunity to play with the Jerusalem String Quartet and became enamored of Antonio Vivaldi.
“Vivaldi was one of the few composers who wrote music originally for the mandolin,” he says. “So whereas my previous albums were Bach and Between Worlds, a conceptual album that cruises between folk and classical, my third disc is an ode to Vivaldi.”
After the army, Avital spent three years under the tutelage of mandolin virtuoso Ugo Orlandi at the Conservatorio Cesare Pollini in Padova, Italy. He stayed in Italy for eight years, basking in the country’s strong aesthetic sense and building a following.
He played often for audiences in Berlin, which has a large Israeli expat community. Avital moved there in 2009. “Berlin is in a great artistic boom phase, like Paris in the beginning of the 20th century. There’s a lot of space for creativity,” Avital explains. “If Italy was beautiful, Berlin was interesting, and I wanted to be part of this party as long as it lasts.”
Many of the musicians he plays with are fellow Israelis. In one of his favorite projects, he teamed up with jazz bassist Omer Avital in a show called “Avital Meets Avital.”
“He’s a jazz man and I’m classically trained, but we wanted to do a project together to bring our worlds together, and Omer composed most of the music. A lot of cultural DNA came into the process, a lot of Moroccan rhythms and modes I never dealt with until that point.”
The musician, who speaks four languages, has a nearly two-year-old son with his wife Roni, an Israel-born academic. The toddler is already a frequent flyer to Israel.
“Having a baby shifts your whole emotional balance, and missing home is now part of my daily menu,” Avital confides. “I feel at home in Berlin, New York and Italy, but my home is in Israel and I’m very proud of my Israeliness. My visits about four times a year are full of family and friends and catching up with everything I miss.”
For more information on Avi Avital’s tour schedule, click here.