The Ascent of Mandolin

The next step in Avi Avital's mission to convert the world to mandolin: Vivaldi

The Ascent of Mandolin
Courtesy of Harald Hoffmann / Deutsche Grammophon

Even if you are a hardcore classical music junkie, you've probably never been to a solo mandolin recital. Let's face it, mandolins are the black sheep of musical instruments, either confined to cherubic depictions in Renaissance paintings or banished to the realm of bluegrass.

Avi Avital, however, is putting mandolin back on the map for the 21st century. Often dubbed the "mandolin ambassador," this Israeli musician has committed his career to building a new life for this historic instrument. As the first mandolin player to receive a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Soloist, Avital's energy on the instrument makes him something of a rock star.

This month, he is touring in celebration of his just-released CD, Avi Avital: Vivaldi. I caught up with him in Hamburg to chat about this project in conjunction with his performance with the Venice Baroque Orchestra Thursday, March 5, at Bates Recital Hall.

Austin Chronicle: Many of your projects have involved commissions of contemporary composers and collaboration with world musicians to forge new repertoire for your instrument. So what inspired you to go back to the music of Antonio Vivaldi now?

Avi Avital: It's indeed very much correct to say "go back." There are a few reasons for that. In order to "convert" the world to mandolin, I first needed to shake the grounds and beliefs of what mandolin is. Now, I think it's a good time to go back to my musical roots. And there's something very fun about the music of Vivaldi.

AC: Is Vivaldi kind of the mother ship for mandolin players, as probably the most famous classical composer to write for the mandolin?

AA: Yes. Vivaldi is always identified with the mandolin, and he respected mandolin players. It's true he wrote more for mandolin players than others, but really, he only wrote two for mandolin among his 500 concerti.

AC: I heard you say that Vivaldi would've been a DJ if he were alive today. What makes this baroque-era composer feel modern to you?

AA: Well, I am not the first to refer to Vivaldi as a pop star, DJ, you name it. I think the power of Vivaldi is in the way that he masters the balance of tension and release. If you gave Bach and Vivaldi the same little theme and asked them to compose the first movement for a concerto, Bach's would be seven minutes but Vivaldi's would be three. He gets right to the point. With a good pop song, there's a buildup through the chorus, then the music explodes. Vivaldi uses genius tricks to concentrate and condense the emotional power; the whole architecting of the composition is very much about giving you this experience of building up the tension and giving up through relief.

AC: How did you end up working with the Venice Baroque Orchestra for this project?

AA: I always knew that I wanted to make a Vivaldi record, and I really wanted to record it in Venice with people from Venice. I wanted to be surrounded by the same context as Vivaldi. I've performed before with the Venice Baroque Orchestra, and there's a special spirit they bring – exciting and on the edge of their chairs. To be with these people adds a little bit of extra to create the most authentic experience that I could have.

AC: So how has your Italian immersion enhanced your understanding of the music?

AA: Well, I also lived in Italy for eight years, and the spontaneity of Italian language and culture is reflected in Vivaldi's music. Everything is sharp and clear and you know where you are going: Language is very clear with sharp vowels. The Italian kitchen is simple – just one flavor in the pasta. Italian perfume's all about highlighting one clean scent.

AC: In addition to works written specifically for mandolin, you will be playing transcriptions of other music written by Vivaldi. How do you decide which music to perform?

AA: The advantage of doing a transcription, especially of very familiar music, is the possibility of offering the audience a different angle on something they already have in their ear, so they hear the piece they know very much with a fresh head. For 90 percent of the audience, I know it will be the first time they're hearing the mandolin. As an artist, it is a great pleasure to feel the curiosity of the audience. How lucky I am to be able to perform to them this very familiar piece in a different light; it's almost impossible in our day to do that!

AC: Why do you love playing the mandolin?

AA: I definitely find an advantage of playing a unique instrument because I always had a creative freedom with the projects I choose to do. Young pianists and violinists take the great violinists and pianists into consideration and probably choose the same repertoire for the same recital halls and competitions. For mandolin, we don't have too many masterpieces, so the excitement of my path is invented. Every project opens another door. I feel that everything is possible.

Avi Avital performs with the Venice Baroque Orchestra Thursday, March 5, 8pm, at Bates Recital Hall, 2406 Robert Dedman, UT campus. For more information, call 512/477-6060 or visit

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mandolin, Avi Avital, Venice Baroque Orchestra, Texas Performing Arts, Bates Recital Hall, Antonio Vivaldi, classical music

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