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Avi Avital's Bach

Avi Avital
Harald Hoffmann
Deutsche Grammophon
Avi Avital

The mandolin virtuoso talks with host Brian McCreath about the rich musical environment of his childhood, what led him to the mandolin, and the role Bach's music plays in his artistic life.

On the program:

Sinfonias (Three-Part Inventions): No. 12 in A, BWV 798; No. 13 in A minor, BWV 799; No. 1 in C, BWV 787 - Till Fellner

Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226 (translation) - Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Sonata in E minor, BWV 1034 (orig. for flute): IV. Allegro - Avi Avital, mandolin; Ophira Zakai, theorbo; Ira Givol, cello

Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052 - Avi Avital, mandolin; Shalev Ad-El, harpsichord; Ophira Zakai, theorbo; Chamber Academy Potsdam

Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, BWV 228 (translation) - Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Hear the complete interview with Avi Avital, recorded in 2012, and read the transcript below:

Avi Avital interview


Brian McCreath Good morning, Avi. How you doing?

Avi Avital Good morning, Brian. I'm doing great.

Brian McCreath Yeah, thank you for being here this morning and what a terrific new CD from the Deutsche Grammophon label. It's just coming out, I think, next week. Is that right?

Avi Avital Yes. On Tuesday, actually.

Brian McCreath On Tuesday, excellent. Excellent. Well, I'd love to talk to you about that CD. But first, I'm very interested just in your background, particularly. You grew up in Israel, so tell me about the environment in which you grew up and what that was like musically.

Avi Avital Sure. So I was born in Be'er Sheva. It's a town in the southern part of Israel, right where the desert starts. And it's a big city, but it feels like a little one.

Brian McCreath Right.

Avi Avital And it's like "a little city with a lot of people," they call it... [McCreath laughs] and yeah. So at home, we actually absorbed a lot of different musical styles. Of course, the synagogue music: as a kid I would still go with my father to the synagogue every Saturday morning. And that was a Moroccan synagogue, so all the melodies, all the liturgy [that] was there was in Moroccan Jewish style. And that, I think, that is the sound of my childhood, I think.

Brian McCreath Wow.

Avi Avital And other than that, of course, in Israel, being a country with such a diverse culture and influence and people have been immigrated from everywhere, that obviously reflects on the music because you can hear a lot of music from every kind of folk.

Brian McCreath Right, right. And Israel has just cultivated that into a very, very rich musical culture, classical and otherwise. So how is it that as a young boy, you ended up with a mandolin in your hands rather than—you know, we think of a lot of great Israeli Israeli musicians like Yefim Bronfman: why were you not a pianist? Or a Gil Shaham: why were you not a violinist? What is it that put the mandolin in your hands?

Avi Avital Yeah that's an interesting story. I mean, it's quite by a coincidence. The conservatory in our town—the little music school where kids would go after elementary school and high school—had a mandolin orchestra, a youth mandolin orchestra. So imagine 40 kids playing mandolin from 8 to 18, something like that.

Brian McCreath [McCreath laughs] I can only imagine. [Avital laughs] That's quite a sight to put in my mind there.

Avi Avital And we had rehearsals every Friday afternoon after school. And it was really, really kind of a nice environment to grow up musically, a very supportive [one], like a big family. And I joined them because one of my neighbors actually in Be'er Sheva played the mandolin. It was one of these, like, apartments, building-apartments, where all the doors are open and all your neighbors are more close than your relatives even, and everyone is in everyone's house. It's was a really beautiful atmosphere back then. And so one of my neighbors, who was also a very good friend of mine, played the mandolin. And so he went—he was older than I, of course—and he went to these mandolin orchestra rehearsals every Friday. And I got curious about it, and I went once to see it, and then I said, "This is what I want to do also after school."

Brian McCreath You know what strikes me about the mandolin, Avi, is that it has its limits, but it also... maybe those limits give you different opportunities. And what do you see as the opportunities that a mandolin gives you that maybe other instruments can't take advantage of as much?

Ari Avital Infinity of opportunities, because sometimes I feel so lucky I'm not, you mentioned before, you know, the great pianists and violinists, and sometimes I feel really lucky to have that neighbor and to have this story and to have ended up with a mandolin because it's all to be discovered. And I feel, every time, I found new things to express with the mandolin, some new possibilities of expression. I don't see it at all as a limited instrument. And I do believe and I do play in big concert halls so I know it can fill concert halls.

And the interesting thing is a lot of this process comes really from the commission-side, from, like, new repertoire, new pieces that are being written for the mandolin. And sometimes it's the composer that helps me to discover something that the mandolin can do that I didn't think of before. Sometimes I would get a score from a composer and the first thing I would say is like, "Wait a minute, I can't play that. It's not going to work," and, you know, "Change that." And then I would give myself a good hour to really try what the composer writes and then I would say, "Wow, okay [Avital laughs] I've discovered something new." So it's really... What fascinated me most about this instrument is that it's like walking on a path that is being created and not having also the big—again if I was a pianist or a violinist, you have the path already, you have the big pianist who played that kind of repertoire and did it that way and you kind of have to follow that. And with the mandolin, I don't feel I have it.

Brian McCreath One composer who didn't write so much for the mandolin is Bach. Now, why is it that you decided Bach was going to be your focus for your first disc with Deutsche Grammophon?

Avi Avital So Bach has something in his music which is unique. We all know that, right? [Avital laughs] It's almost too banal to say. [McCreath laughs] But it's so universal and so absolute that I think it crosses, I mean, it crosses every boundary of instrument. if you hear something, if you hear a Bach piece on any instrument, piano, accordion, you name it, you immediately hear it's Bach, first thing. And then it works, it really works because it's so powerful. The melody and the harmony, just the pieces themself are so powerful that I think it really translates to every instrument. Beyond that, Bach was... Bach accompanied my life since ever. And that's the thing that I always played as a kid and as a grown up and most of my concerts somehow include a Bach piece, whether it's solo or with orchestra or in a chamber setting. And I just love it. So it was very organic to for me to to choose Bach for the debute album.

See Avi Avital perform in GBH's Fraser Performance Studio: