january 2011
border crossings



brent[Ed. note: This piece brings together two of the foremost practitioners of classical mandolin in the world. New York City-based Joe Brent has given solo recitals and workshops across Europe, Asia, and North and South America, while maintaining an active career as a symphonic and chamber musician. Simultaneously, his performances with The Joe Brent Quartet and pop singer/songwriter Regina Spektor have earned him worldwide acclaim for his versatility as an improvisational and rock musician. He is currently on faculty at Mannes College The New School For Music in New York City, the first and only mandolinist on faculty at a major American conservatory. He has a CD release scheduled for early next year on Vienna Modern Masters, comprised of solo and duo mandolin pieces composed by Mannes College composition professor David Loeb. Avi Avital, born and raised in Israel and now a resident of Padua, Italy, has been busy breaking new ground for classical mandolin and has been suitably praised for doing so. Currently he’s up for a Grammy Award for “Best Performance of Soloist With Orchestra” for his recording of Avner Dorman's Mandolin Concerto, written especially for him. The online Mandolin Café site recently called on Mr. Brent to interview his friend Mr. Avital. In a freewheeling conversation, the two discussed Mr. Avital’s background and influences, past and present, as well as issues such as the state of music education systems in different countries and the challenge to him posed by the Dorman Mandolin Concerto. With the permission of Scott Tichenor, founder of Mandolin Café, and Mr. Brent, the interview with Avi Avital is reprinted here.]



Artist To Artist: 10 Minutes With Avi Avital

By Joe Brent

One of the enduring pleasures of being a mandolinist is the immediate kinship one feels with like-minded artists, both domestically and internationally, beyond genre, geography, and language. If, as Thomas Freidman asserts, the modern world is getting flatter, then our instrument (and our love of music in general) is one of many factors helping to foster that. Likewise, too, is the advent of communication technologies such as Skype; another enduring pleasure is the ability to ring up my friend Avi Avital, Israel’s brilliant classical mandolinist, at any time, half a world away, and talk shop. And when I heard that he'd recently been nominated for the “Best Performance of Soloist With Orchestra” Grammy for his recording of Avner Dorman's Mandolin Concerto, written especially for him, I took the opportunity to do just that.

Joe Brent: So, Mr. Avital (ahem, ahem), pleased to be here with you. Here meaning me in New York, and you in Berlin.

Avi Avital: Nice to be here with you as well Joe! Special thanks to our webcams.

JB: And for metronome/tuner phone apps.

AA: No kidding, they did save me more than once.

JB: Let's begin with some background. You once told me a great story about how you began playing the mandolin. Perhaps you'd like to recount it?

AA: It is a little funny how it happened. When I was about five years old, we moved to a new apartment block in Be'er Sheva, which is a small town in the south region of Israel, and I immediately became friends with my upstairs neighbors. They were a small gang of three brothers, a little bit older than I. We hung out a lot together, playing outside a lot, and I knew one of them played the mandolin. When my parents let me choose an after-school activity I just said the mandolin, because that's what my neighbor did. This is how simple it was for me at the time. Luckily, my friend just got a new Suzuki Mandolin, so I inherited his old one, and started taking lessons at the local conservatory. This neighbor, by the way, is mandolinist Jacob Reuven, whom you know.

JB: I love that two of the leading mandolin players from Israel grew up within earshot of each other.

AA: And you know, it's not just us two, all the Israeli professional mandolin players grew up in Be'er Sheva, which is really quite a small place.

JB: It's amazing how many excellent mandolinists have come out of Israel in the past few years. You, Jaki, Tom Cohen, Alon Sariel, etc. Why do you think the mandolinist-to-civilian ratio is so much higher in Israel than it is in, say, the USA?

AA: To a large extent in our case it has a lot to do with one very charismatic teacher of our conservatory, Simcha Nathansohn, who founded the Mandolin Orchestra of Be'er Sheva back in the 70s. That's where we all grew up. I remember that this was the place where I fell in love with music.

J.S. Bach, Concerto in A Minor: Avi Avital, mandolin, with Orchestra Milano Classica, Palazzina Liberti, Milano, Feb. 9, 2009

JB: It seems like there are seeds being planted like that all over the world these days. Israel has a first class musical education system; add water, wait a bit, and up grows all these wonderful players. Same thing is happening in many places across Europe.

AA: That is true. I see a growing interest all over the world for the mandolin, and exciting musical education projects and ideas. My experience growing up was a one person's madness kind of thing. A dedicated teacher that made us all understand music and love the mandolin from a very early age. He set very high standards. When I entered the mandolin orchestra at the age of 10, it was known that by the age of 14 you'd play the first Bach sonata and that on your final recital at 18 you'll probably play Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saens and the Chaconne by Bach. But that was the reality I grew into, so it came very naturally. At the same time, we had no idea of what was going on in the rest of the mandolin world. These days it's interesting for me to observe young mandolin students of this generation. They absorb so much information, and everything is so accessible.

JB: Can you describe some of the different educational systems you've been able to observe around the world? How are they different/similar, and are there any you think are particularly strong?

AA: There are different systems around, but I still believe that when it comes to music it is mostly the persona of the teacher that shapes you as a musician, especially in the early stages. I know I am a strange bird in this sense, since in Be'er Sheva the system was that we didn't have any system at all. In fact, even the legendary mandolin teacher Simcha Nathansohn wasn't a mandolinist, but a violinist! When this guy immigrated from east Europe to Israel in the ‘70s, he landed in Be'er Sheva and wanted to teach violin in the Conservatory. They said, "Sorry, we already have a violin teacher, but if you want, we have some mandolins in the basement. You could start a class..." He was courageous enough to accept the offer. And in fact, he didn't teach us mandolin as such; he taught us music through the mandolin. Much later, I realized that I had never learned how to hold a mandolin in the conventional way, and that I held the pick differently from other people in the world. Now I know it was also an advantage, because this lack of a system is what shaped my artistic identity into one that searches for the mandolin, always trying to break what is known and common about it—for example by playing crazy arrangements for Bach's harpsichord concerti, or by commissioning new concertos. Most importantly, I realized that I was always concentrated on the music making. The technique developed according to the musical needs.

JB: So it was only natural that you would focus on new music throughout your career.

AA: New music is one aspect of my work, and probably a dominant one over the past few years. It was a long process of forming this artistic identity (and thank God, it is still changing and developing). In Israel I used to play mostly a violin repertoire. That was what my teachers knew. When I graduated from the Music Academy in Jerusalem I met Ugo Orlandi, who made me realize that if I wanted to call myself a classical mandolin player I should get to know the original repertoire and practice the more traditional techniques. For a few years with him I played almost exclusively original mandolin music (Munier, Calace etc.). This phase was essential in my life and I learned a lot from it, but after three years I realized that wasn't entirely my thing either. I didn't see myself playing violin music on the mandolin for the rest of my life nor playing exclusively the original repertoire that relatively to the other instruments is somehow limited (I'm still waiting for someone to find Bach's lost Six Sonatas for Mandolin Solo—is anyone on top of it?). Then I realized that what interested me the most were possibilities of redefining the mandolin. To love the mandolin for its unique qualities and also to push every limit that one might think it has.

Avi Avital playing the Avner Dorman Mandolin Concerto with the Metropolis Ensemble conducted by Andrew Cyr. This recording is nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Performance of a Soloist with Orchestra.

JB: The Six Sonatas for Mandolin Solo is hiding in plain sight. It's just that his publishers messed up, and now violinists think they were written for them. Does the Dorman Concerto satisfy that instinct for you?

AA: When I received the first draft of the Dorman concerto via mail, he asked me to see if it's all written well for the mandolin. I answered, "As if a mandolin player wrote it." After a couple of days of reading the music I called him and said, "Actually it's not as if a mandolin player wrote it, it's as if I wrote it, if I had any of your talent." Dorman's concerto in many ways reflects this voyage for the definition of the mandolin. It summarizes the many faces and associations that one has when he hears the word mandolin. In one of my conversations with Dorman, before writing the piece, we talked about what the mandolin meant for him, and he said something like "Baroque and Bluegrass and Middle Eastern and Vivaldi and Brazil and Russian melodies and Italian movies." Somehow he managed to take all this elements, consciously or unconsciously, break them, flip them, mix them together, and serve it as a new dish. I connect so much with this concerto since it reflects a lot of what interest me as a mandolin player. Plus, he used techniques that I even didn't know were possible on the mandolin. It made me discover some new sounds from the instrument I had been holding for most of my life!

concertoJB: I heard you play it last year here in New York, and it's a wonderful piece, a fantastic new addition to the major repertoire for our instrument. But what struck me most about it was how it takes advantage of the unique way our instrument produces sound. If you think about it, the average human ear prefers to hear things that produce sounds most similar to the human voice: violin, cello, winds, melodies with long, bel canto-style notes. Our instrument is obviously very different. But the best mandolin repertoire takes what might be considered a weakness and turns it into a strength; it conceives of concepts like “melody” and “phrase,” and through the prism of the mandolin, presents them in a new way that makes the ear perk up and say, "Well, I hadn't thought of it that way, that's interesting." Avner Dorman's piece does that, I think.

AA: That's a great observation.

JB: So instead of trying to force the instrument to do something it doesn't want to do, it lets it just be a mandolin, as if to say, "There's this other way that's also pretty cool." There's a lengthy arpeggiated passage in the cadenza that I particularly like. Totally “mandolinistic.”

AA: That is definitely true, but at the same time the concerto also just goes beyond the instrument, as if it passes through it to express something else. You know, sometimes I like to forget that I play the mandolin. Don't get me wrong, I am a very proud mandolin player! But sometimes I play and I forget that I'm holding a mandolin. I'm trying to say, the mandolin is my instrument. It is a tool with which I transfer music, from somewhere to the listener. My dear friend and mentor Giora Feidman likes to say: the pipe doesn't produce water. That's why I allow myself to play Bach and other arranged pieces on the mandolin. This music is just absolute. It's bigger than the mandolin or violin or cello or any other instrument.

JB: The recording of this piece with the Metropolis Ensemble was recently nominated for a Grammy award. Terrifically exciting! Where were you when you heard the news?

AA: It was an SMS (text message) that woke me up at 6 a.m. in Berlin from a friend in Israel saying "congratulations." I had no idea what he is talking about, so I took myself out of bed to open my computer and then I saw a long list of emails. The first was from Dorman delivering the news, followed by an Email from conductor Andrew Cyr and producer David Frost.

JB: Amazing for you, and for all of us, really.

AA: I very much believe that this is an important milestone for the mandolin. I think this is the first time in the history of the Grammy that a mandolin is nominated in a classical category as a solo instrument with orchestra. It reflects the great renaissance of our instrument in the last few years, the increasing interest of audiences in it. My hope that this incredible exposure for the mandolin will encourage many new people to search for mandolin music in concerts and on CDs and make them madly fall in love with this instrument, like us.

Avi Avital joins the David Orlowsky Trio on ‘Goldfinger,’ at Leverkusener Jazztage 2008

JB: There has been quite an explosion of interest in the classical mandolin recently, at least here in the USA. All the bluegrassers are just now discovering this Bach fellow. Mannes has started a mandolin department, so our foot's in the door of the conservatories, like guitar was 30 years ago. And in Europe there are so many wonderful teachers. We're riding a wave, but how do we keep it going? New repertoire is a big one for me, which is why it's so cool to see a new mandolin piece honored so.

AA: Let's call it the first of many more to come!

JB: Can you name a few players working currently that you particularly admire?

AA: Wow, I like many mandolin players, also because everyone has his or her own unique voice. On the buegrass end I really like Mike Marshall, Dave Grisman, Chris Thile and also Andy Statman, whom I met in Vienna at one of his concerts. From the classical players I like Caterina Lichtenberg, Ugo Orlandi, Carlo Aonzo. Each one of them is very creative, and in a different ways, it's inspiring. I also enjoy very much listening to Hamilton de Holanda's records. And of course there's you! I think we share a big passion for new music for the mandolin and it was so much fun to play with you in concert in New York a couple of years ago. Remember what we played?

JB: I do! It was an International Contemporary Ensemble concert, and we were doing an all-Bach program, sort of as a lark. They asked me to do a solo Bach piece, but I knew you were in town, and I figured it might be a good excuse to get a chance to perform with you. So I asked them if we could do an invention together, and they said yes—mandolin mania! I think we did the C major. That was a great concert; I also got to play the Eb Flute Sonata (improved, I think, by arranging it for mandolin) with harpist Bridget Kibbey, who you also know well.

AA: Yes, that was a wonderful and memorable concert.

JB: What non-mandolinists (nobody's perfect) have inspired you as a musician?

AA: I'm very inspired by Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, and John Williams, the legendary guitarists that practically shaped the classical guitar as we know it today. Listening to their recordings one can hear their passion and commitment to the guitar. All three are fabulous musicians and true pioneers.

JB: Interesting that you immediately mention three great guitarists. Do you find yourself ever trying to approach fingering/right-hand technique in a “guitaristic” way? I know I do.

AA: In fact I like playing the guitar once in a while and I find that it really contributes to my mandolin technique. Other instruments too, but especially the guitar.

JB: Specifically, the way guitarists will allow certain strings to ring out to simulate a more legato phrasing, or in the use of tasto-ponticello to “orchestrate” a piece, as Segovia became famous for.

AA: That's a good point.

JB: What other non-mandolinists have similarly inspired you?

AA: That's a tougher one to answer, so I'll just mention two musicians that I had the huge honor to work with very recently in New York. First, conductor Simon Rattle, with whom I had the pleasure to work on a piece by Ligeti with a small mandolin part. It was so fascinating to watch him work with the ensemble, beaming with energy. It felt like he cast a spell on the room during the rehearsal, and he made perfect sense of every little note in this complex modern piece. I also recently performed with violinist Daniel Hope who I have always been inspired by. He manages to innovate where it seems impossible to do so (especially as a violinist). Watching him rehearse made me appreciate his genius even more. I generally think you learn a lot about musicians from how they rehearse.

avi avital
Avi Avital with his Arik Kerman mandolin
Photo courtesy www.aviavital.com.

JB: Mandolin Cafe readers would have my head if I didn't ask you to talk a bit about the Kerman mandolin that you and many Israeli musicians use. What are its advantages, and how would you say it has influenced your voice?

AA: Arik Kerman is a one-man institution. He is the maker of the mandolins I and most of my colleagues from Israel play most of the time. He is based in Tel Aviv and I think he must be around seventy already. His mandolins reflect of a long relationship with many mandolin players, and careful attention to our requests. We would say things within our own tastes and needs, sometime things like "more bass, less bass," sometimes requests about the dimensions, or complaints about the volume, and he would find the way to make the adjustment. He's a perfect example for someone who thinks outside the box, and has had the courage to change some major things in the traditional way of mandolin making. Arik Kerman never makes the same mandolin twice. Each mandolin he has made in his life is different from the previous one, like he's obsessed with trying to build the perfect mandolin. I played many of his instruments since I've been 14 years old-he has always allowed me to exchange the instrument when he built a new one, until about ten years ago I found my current one and since then it's my favorite. By now I feel so comfortable with it like it's already a part of my body and my voice.

JB: I remember another occasion you and I had to drive out to Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island, where I heard you play a bit of Bach's Chaconne on a Gibson F4, as well as my own Brian Dean Grand Concert and Pandini Neapolitan. If I do say so, I think you sound great on just about any instrument.

AA: What a fun trip that was! I felt so lucky to try some of the most beautiful pieces we saw there, and felt like a child who wants to buy the whole shop.

JB: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today! Hope to see you again soon!

AA: Thanks, Joe. Always a pleasure. See you soon indeed!

avi avital

Additional information

Avi Avital web site

Avi Avital on Facebook

Joe Brent web site

Joe Brent on Facebook

Joe Brent Mannes College faculty web page

Interview from December 28, 2010 reprinted courtesy Mandolin Café. The site was launched November 18, 1995 and is owned and maintained by Scott Tichenor. Its features include a Forum (for the discussion of all things madolin related); a News section; downloadable MP3s; "the most comprehensive list of mandolin family builders on the internet with 886 listings"; listings of mandolin workshops, camps and clinics; listings of mandolin-centric Social Groups; mandolin classified; and related resources.

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