Learning About the Art of the Mandolin From Avi Avital

Image courtesy of Christoph Köstlin/DGG.

Avi Avital is a world-renowned Israeli mandolinist. The first Grammy-nominated classical mandolinist, his latest album, The Art of the Mandolin, was released in 2020. He is also an active commissioner of new works for the classical mandolin. WHRB's Arjun Nageswaran spoke to Avital about playing the mandolin, the history of mandolin and classical music, historically informed performance practice, commissions, and more.

The transcript below has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Arjun Nageswaran: You're in the middle of a world tour right now. How has it been going?

Avi Avital: It's going great. It's one of those post-lockdown tours, so you know everyone is excited to be back at a concert hall, and so it has a very special energy to it. I feel like I'm back in element to the stage, and the concerts are rather normal now and the lengths are normal and the programs are normal, so it feels good. It feels like coming back to something very familiar.

Have concerts returned back to a pre-pandemic normal, or are we still not there yet?

The short answer is yes, but the long answer is more complex because I think everyone is trying to figure out what a concert experience should look like. This was an opportunity to also stop and reassess what is it that we offer as artistic experience to the concertgoers. This is something in any case that I've been thinking about all my life. That's my job to generate such experiences, but it feels that that portion of it is related to tradition today. The tradition of a classical concert is more flexible now, and people are more open to play a little bit with their traditions.

What makes the mandolin special as an instrument? What are some of its unique capabilities and drawbacks?

What fascinates me about the mandolin is that it's a very familiar instrument. Throughout history, it was always a popular instrument—even if not the mandolin specifically, certainly the wider group of plucked string instruments. You can imagine in any culture, there is a plucked string instrument which is the main sound of the culture. The mandolin—let's say from the eighteenth century—was quite a popular instrument. In Italy, at least, in the noble families, that's the instrument that we would find in the salon, hanging on the wall. It's an instrument that is easy to pick up and play a tune, easy to take on travels. A bit like the ukulele today, or the guitar in my generation. From the other side, it's completely unknown or on the rarer side in the classical concert hall, so not many people have heard the mandolin played live in a concert hall. As a mandolin player who does that, it's a great privilege, because I ride on this excitement of discovering something new, which is quite challenging in a traditional art form.

I like this duality about the mandolin. It's a source of a lot of references also in the hands of the composers, who write music to it. This is true throughout history. For example, in Mozart's Don Giovanni, there is a small part with the mandolin, really for a minute and 30 seconds that Mozart uses the mandolin in all his operas and instrumentals. It's the only time he uses the mandolin. It’s not only because of the sound, which is very sweet and very proper for that canzonetta there, the aria that is sung there, but it's also a reference to the social class of Don Giovanni, of the serenade scene, where he sings to the window of someone he wants to conquer, of course. So it’s all these kinds of references of the sweet innocent instrument in the hands of the predator Don Giovanni, referencing a little bit of what was the mandolin at that time, so this is I think very smart. Like Mozart, a lot of famous composers still use the sound of the mandolin to evoke a reference that is not necessarily purely musical.

Speaking of the role of the mandolin in the classical repertoire, in your album Art of the Mandolin, all of the pieces were originally written for mandolin. But as you mentioned, the classical repertoire for mandolin is sometimes limited, so have you tried to expand the role of the mandolin?

The Art of the Mandolin, which is my latest recording, was unusual for me because it's the first album that I made exclusively with music that is written originally for the mandolin. All the compositions on this album take the mandolin and have different associations with it. There is a different reason why each composer chose the mandolin. At the same time, it was very hard to find the 500-something minutes of music because most of the composers in classical music history did not write for the mandolin because it wasn't part of the mainstream concert situation. When I realized that shortly after I finished my studies, I realized that I'm going to call myself a professional mandolin player now, but actually 95% of the pieces I play are written for violin, and only a few pieces are written for the mandolin, because of—I don't know —a historical error that things went this way in the history for the mandolin, so what can I do about it?

I started to commission a lot of pieces from living composers and it was very interesting because I always ask the composer before they write a piece, what does the mandolin mean to you, what does it say to you? Some say Italian film or music; some say Middle Eastern music, bluegrass, Brazilian choro, Eastern European music—there are so many associations. This has been a journey in the past twenty years that I've been commissioning new works for the mandolin every year. I think by now I'm over a hundred world premieres for pieces written for the mandolin, for me or for the ensembles I was a member of. It's fabulous because I feel that with every new piece I also learn something new about the mandolin.

What is the process of commissioning a piece like? As the soloist, what input do you have in the composition?

That is so different from one composer to another. Usually, in the past years, I would choose a composer whose music I liked, and then I would approach them and ask them if they would be interested in taking a commission. Then we would talk about what would be the right piece, a mandolin solo piece or a concerto with a big orchestra or with a small orchestra, or with a string quartet, and usually that would make them start to think about the sounds and start the process of the creation in their mind. Other times, it's something that I think that I need specifically like, “Okay, I have a program with a string quartet, please write for that.”

Some composers like very close collaboration and very regular involvement in the process of writing the piece. For example, a mandolin concerto that Avner Dorman wrote for me back in the day, we were Skyping many times and for long times throughout the process of writing the piece. He would send me just fragments, sometimes a couple of bars or one line from the mandolin part and asked that I would play it back to him, we would improvise together, we would talk together, so that I was very involved in the process. Other composers, they just write the music and you get it when it's done as a PDF, so it's very different. It’s important for me to always make the composer think. When you write for the mandolin, it's not like any other instrument. It really becomes a part of the development of the instrument, not just a singular isolated event.

Yesterday, you performed the American premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s mandolin concerto. Since you were the first performer of the piece, were there any specific stylistic choices or decisions you made, since that would probably influence future performers?

Absolutely. It was a long, long-time dream of mine to have Jennifer Higdon compose for the mandolin. It took some time, but it happened and it's a lovely piece. I mentioned before that I learn a lot about the mandolin from these pieces, and this was also the case, because the first time, when Jennifer Higdon sent me the mandolin part, my first impression of it was “wow”. She uses a lot of double stops with open strings throughout a lot of the piece, and I was kind of like, “Wow who writes like that.” I’ve never seen it in any other mandolin piece, and I was there not knowing how it would work.

Diving into the piece and playing it for half an hour, an hour, days before the premiere I said, “Wow, this is brilliant, it actually amplifies the sound and kind of acts sympathetically to the melodic line,” and now this is part of the vocabulary of mandolin composition, because that was her original approach. I didn't know the effect it would make within the orchestration, so it was quite, quite amazing. It's quite challenging, it's very virtuosic, and it’s still growing. Jennifer was at the hall yesterday, taking notes. We worked together and changed some things, so it's also nice when a composer goes back to the piece and maybe corrects things that didn't sound very natural at the beginning, or in their imagination.

Moving past from pieces written originally for the mandolin I think you touched on this earlier. you've played Baroque pieces not originally written for the mandolin like Bach’s harpsichord concerto and Vivaldi’s violin concertos. How do you go about the process of transcription and how do you choose which pieces to adapt to the mandolin?

First of all, I have to like the piece and have the feeling that they have something to say about. And I always ask myself, what added value does the listener have listening to it on a mandolin, and not on the original version, and I have to find an answer to that; if not, I won't take the piece just because I think I can play it.

The answer to that question can be varied because many times pieces that have a folklorist origin in them work very well on the mandolin because the color of the sound of the mandolin gives already some folklorist perfume to it, or a bit of taste. If we play a piece by Manuel de Falla or Albéniz or the Spanish composers, that was written as classical music for the concert hall, but with very obvious Spanish folkloristic material, playing it on the mandolin would squeeze out that kind of Spanish folklorist sound, it would reference the guitar or the bandurria, and all these folk traditions. If I play Jennifer Higdon, if I play an American piece, there would be references for the bluegrass sound because that's maybe what people have in mind when listening to this music. So when I play Italian music, it would sound very Italian, if it's eastern European music, it would sound very eastern European. so I think that's one of the answers, I think it gives kind of a different angle to a piece that I perform that was not necessarily written for the mandolin.

Another answer is that often very familiar pieces, when played on a mandolin, give you an opportunity to have a fresh listen to it. When I play The Four Seasons, I realized that everyone in the hall coming to the concert already has The Four Seasons in their head. Whether they want to or not, they've heard it hundreds of times even going in a shopping mall or waiting on the call on the line for some service. It's something that everyone knows—for a reason, it's a masterpiece obviously, but I realized that when they sit in the hall they already hear a violin sound playing the melodies. Suddenly playing it on a mandolin with a different sound can offer a fresh listening experience, and you become aware of that, because it doesn't sync with what you have very strongly in your mind, whether for the Four Seasons or for other pieces, by Bach or Vivaldi or by Romantic composers.

Since these pieces weren’t originally written for the mandolin, do you find that you have to change a lot of things when doing the transcription? For example, the harpsichord has a very different range than the mandolin and uses two hands.

The harpsichord was an exception, because most of the pieces that I perform are written for the violin originally, and the violin is tuned like the mandolin. It has the same tuning, the same set of strings (although the mandolin has doubled strings), and the same range, so theoretically everything that is written for the violin one could play on the mandolin. I sometimes also take pieces that are written for voice for songs or lieder or melodies.

The harpsichord concerto was an exception because I just really had to transcribe this piece—the D minor concerto—since it does have two very busy hands. For Bach, there are pieces for which you find versions for different instruments, like the E major concerto for violin that was then transcribed for the harpsichord in D major. Or the concerto for four violins by Vivaldi that was transcribed for four keyboards. This kind of violin work that was transcribed for harpsichord, or the other way around, was quite common in the time of Bach. Also, this D minor concerto has a very strong right hand—let's call it the melody—and accompaniment on the left hand which is doubled often by the orchestra, so I turned it into a melodic instrument concerto. There is a theory that this concerto had a version for violin, and there were several attempts by different arrangers or composers to create such a version that I looked into as a reference. I think that playing it on the mandolin is somewhere between the violin version, imagined or reconstructed, and the original harpsichord version, which in sound is closer to the mandolin.

We’ve talked about how the mandolin is played in many different genres. You've covered folk melodies from countries like Bulgaria and your albums and we've also talked about how American audiences might associate the mandolin more with bluegrass. As a musician, where do you see yourself? Do you see yourself more as a classical mandolinist or do you try to encompass other genres?

My education was quite unusual in terms of music, and my interest in music is very broad. Most of my concept of classical music is because this is what I do mainly, this is how I learned, but I do collaborate. I play, for example, Balkan music, and klezmer, and I used to play Persian music and now I have collaborations with jazz musicians and I used to play rock also, so you know for me it's all the same. I don't make this separation because it's all music. It’s like you have different dialects to the same language, the language being music. It’s also interesting to me to see what is the mechanism, what are the nuances that make a specific musical genre exciting, where's the essence of one specific genre, so I really don't experience this separation. It comes very organically in my world.

For example, when I play a classical concert, the encore will be a Balkan or non-classical piece, and vice versa. If I play with my Balkan music trio, maybe the encore would be Bach. I like to mix things and to keep the back and forth, and to break a little bit the habit of listening to one genre.

Are there any artists and composers you particularly admire, whether classical or not, and what kind of music do you tend to listen to when you're not performing?

In the past two years, I have been really exploring a lot of folk music from Spain. I was exploring, for example, Rocío Márquez, who is an amazing flamenco singer. She's very authentic and very loyal to the origins, yet very up to date and creative, so I love her recordings. I’ve been exploring a lot of folk music or traditional music. Exploration is the key word because I like to discover new music, but at the same time I go to my favorite musicians and my favorite rock albums from high school.

In terms of living composers, I recently worked with Giovanni Sollima, whom I admire. My bucket list is full. I have so many composers I would love to see writing for the mandolin, I would love to imagine myself playing their music. Thomas Adès is someone I really, really like, for example, and Osvaldo Golijov from the Boston area is one of my favorite composers as well. So much great music out there.

How long have you been playing on your current mandolin, and do you ever switch up different mandolins when playing different types of music?

That's a very good question.This would be a short answer kind of question, but I'll take the opportunity to talk a little bit about this because the development of instruments and the development of the repertoire are bonded together throughout the history of music. If you look at the harpsichord becoming the fortepiano becoming the piano, the development of the keyboard in the last three hundred years is phenomenal and it’s also in sync to the repertoire that composers wrote.

In other words, there's this triangle, imagine, of an instrumentalist, a composer, and an instrument maker. The composer would see the current instrumentalist’s generation’s level and would normally try to write new things that composers didn’t write before that time and that would be maybe more virtuosic or use an extended version of what exists. That would force, in a good sense, the instrumentalist to step up their game in terms of technique, in terms of expression, and develop that technique over generations and also go back to the instrument maker. and give them their feedback. We need a larger, bigger, stronger, louder, more notes, and it goes back to the composer and so on.

If you imagine taking the best pianist in Mozart’s time, and bring him into our days and give him Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2—or the other way around, bringing the Rachmaninoff concerto back to Mozart’s time—no one could have played that piece at that time, and probably the piano would break if anyone tried. The motor of development in the classical music tradition is connected to the development of the instruments that people played and the compositions being made. This is kind of the model that I hope to put in motion again. There are so many commissions, so much interest in writing for the mandolin these days. That does send me and other mandolin players to their makers and saying, “Okay, we need more this, more that, more bass, more treble,” and they would respond to that.

I feel very lucky. I’m playing an instrument made by Arik Kerman, an Israeli maker whom I’ve known for 25 years. It's still in development, it's incredible, he still makes mandolins, and if I’m in Israel, I would go and listen and give feedback and he would use that and that's how we would develop these instruments. The one that I play normally (I have several instruments by him) is from 1998, so quite old in terms of mandolins but not at all old in what we normally would consider old, and after trying a lot of instruments by him, this is the one that I had the best chemistry with. Sometimes I would change and play other mandolins, also by Arik Kerman. I have to say that this is kind of my voice. I got used to it and I also have other types of mandolin at home, but you would very rarely see me play them.

Between Baroque concerts, for example, and more modern music, where they might been written for different kinds of mandolins, would you still use the same instrument, or would you switch?

That's interesting, because I used to switch, I remember. I have a few Baroque mandolins at home, so these are copies of the mandolins for which Vivaldi wrote, for which Mozart wrote, the kind of instruments for which the music was intended. I have those and I played with some Baroque orchestra—I think the last time was maybe six or seven years ago. It was a certain Baroque orchestra in which they were all playing Baroque instruments and were paying close attention to materials and trying to recreate the original sound. I brought my Baroque mandolin and it was a wonderful concert. I brought a little Venetian mandolin, which is very different from the one I play, very tiny, has gut strings, or nylon strings nowadays. It's softer, but has a very sweet sound and I played my Vivaldi concertos with this orchestra and it went all very well.

Then I was called to do an encore, but I didn't have much repertoire to do my usual encore. I didn't have an encore on that mandolin. It’s a different tuning and a different set of strings, so it's way different from the mandolin you all know. I had my modern mandolin backstage and I came back just to do the encore with my modern mandolin. Just the reaction of the public to the sound—it was just a bigger sound, it came more naturally to me, it was so much easier to generate what I wanted to generate. So other people use Baroque instruments and it's great, and I would listen to it very gladly, but it's not me. I play Vivaldi on my modern mandolin, and that's the best I can play Vivaldi. There's been a development within the early music movement so that now these things are less rigorous, less important, people are being less orthodox about it than ten or fifteen years ago, which is great. I stick with the one thing I know how to do best.

To close, do you have any advice for new mandolin players or those considering picking up the mandolin?

Well, the most wonderful thing about the mandolin is that there are no rules. The lack of tradition in this case is a blessing. If you see the instruments we talked about, it is the only instrument that comes in so many different shapes and forms. America has the flat-backed kind of Gibson-oriented mandolin, but in Italy it's a ball-back always. In Brazil, it's different; in Germany it’s different. There is no standard to how a mandolin looks or even sounds like. It’s not like the flute. The flute, if you go to Brazil or Japan or America or Italy, would look the same, same for the violin and the cello.

I love that about the mandolin, really the only instrument that has this flexibility and also with technique, with the sound, with the sound aesthetics. Everything is great, everything works. I love that there is no one school of playing that everyone should follow absolutely. As mandolin players, we should preserve this diversity in styles, so that's my tip. Explore and find your intuition, and I think this would lead to things that we haven't heard before.

Arjun Nageswaran ’25 is a producer for the Classical Music Department.