By Carolyn Conte
Israeli musician Avi Avital is a rock star on the mandolin, and he is on a personal mission to popularize an underrated instrument.
His next step will be three live performances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on March 6 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, March 7 at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, and March 8 at Meyerhoff. Avital will perform with conductor and harpsichordist Nicholas McGegan, “with who I worked before and is an absolute delight,” Avital said.
“BSO is one of those landmarks that is a privilege to work with. This is something on the calendar I was looking forward to in a long time,” he said.
Avital said that as a traveling musician he learns something from every new place that he puts in his “invisible backpack” to enrich his world. As this will be his first time in Baltimore, Avital anticipates it happily.
Avital is from Be’er Sheva. His Moroccan immigrant parents wanted him to play a classical instrument as part of their assimilation into Israel. So, at age 8, he chose the mandolin. He knew a neighbor who played it, and “I could feel it and listen to from nearby. It was very real to me,” he said. Soon, Avital was learning from Russian violinist Simcha Nathanson, whom he calls a visionary. The education was also a fun social gathering for him and the other 40 students.
Now, Avital, who just turned 40, said that his wish list of to-dos, which he made last decade, is complete. It included playing at Carnegie Hall, a Grammy nomination, and being signed to a major label.
“Ten years ago, if someone told me any of them, I would think it’s science fiction,” he said. But now his challenge is to create a new list and fulfill it. “I have ambitions to take the mandolin to the next stage.”
Avital feels the instrument is unique because of its element of discovery. The mandolin is entering a new course in music history.
“The mandolin was stuck since the 18th century. It didn’t have a major repertoire,” he said. So, when Avital steps onto the stage, he is excited to share something with the audience that many of them have not heard before. “None of my pianist or violinist colleagues can say this,” he said.
Traditional styles of the mandolin may be somewhat limited, he said, and so he has provided feedback for Israeli luthier Arik Kerman to create his personal, more versatile mandolins over the past 17 years.
“Growing up, we wanted to redefine the mandolin and bring it back to the concert hall. Kerman wanted to develop an instrument that wouldn’t follow the traditional mandolin,” Avital said. So, Kerman built a “super mandolin to be performed in bigger orchestras.”
Today, Avital lives in Berlin. He sees it as the new center of the classical music industry. “The big labels, management, and conductors were passing through Berlin, if not making their home there,” he said, and there “is a feeling of a space for creation.”
He hopes that going forward, he can expand his creative side, write more music, improvise, and stretch outside of his comfort zone.
“I would like to start an educational movement similar to the one I grew up with,” he added. “I would be delighted to start a big movement and bring back this mandolin orchestra as something people can enjoy and discover music through.”
He believes all art has great potential. “Any art is something that works one’s imagination,” he said. “There is always a participation of the spirit of imagination. Even if we read the same book, the same line, our head imagines the scenery, how the character looks.”
When people practice these arts, “they can imagine how is it meant to be in another person’s shoes. It leads to empathy and understanding.”