Avi Avital's Bach
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:
See Avi Avital perform in GBH's Fraser Performance Studio:
Avi Avital The conservatory in our town had a mandolin orchestra. And I joined them because one of my neighbors played the mandolin. 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 Avi Avital has come a long way since that boyhood fascination with the mandolin. His international artistic career takes him in all sorts of directions. But one composer remains at the foundation of it all.
Avi Avital plays – and talks about – Bach’s music, coming up on The Bach Hour.
Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. One of the luxuries of my job is occasional encounters with extraordinary musicians, just as they’re beginning to carve out their presence in the seemingly impenetrable thicket of the world’s concert stages. And along the way, it’s an extra pleasure to find someone completely at ease with who they are, where they’re from, and where they’re headed. That was the case when I met mandolinist Avi Avital in 2012, when he came through Boston for the first time. You’ll hear our conversation and his own take on Bach later in the hour.
Also on the program are two pieces from a set of works that conductor John Eliot Gardiner considers to be “the most perfect, and in some ways, the most hypnotic [of Bach’s] works.” They’re motets, and you’ll find a translation of them from Boston’s Emmanuel Music at Classical WCRB dot org. That’s where you’ll also find a video of Avi Avital in our Fraser Performance Studio. Again that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.
In the meantime, here is pianist Till Fellner, with three of Bach’s Sinfonias, or Three-Part Inventions, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 797, BWV 796]
Pianist Till Fellner, with Bach’s Three-Part Inventions in A major, A minor and C major.
Those Three-Part Inventions were written mainly as a teaching tool, like so many of Bach’s solo keyboard works. Another set of works meant for training young musicians are the six motets Bach wrote over the course of many years. But that’s not the only thing behind these choral pieces.
They were written for funeral. And yet, while they take on the existential themes you might expect, they’re also infused with an energy and verve that you might find surprising. They reflect a joyful celebration of the passing of a soul to the afterlife.
That’s certainly the case with Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, or The Spirit gives aid to our weakness, a short piece written in 1729 for the funeral of the headmaster of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig.
It begins with an airy, soprano-dominated line evoking that first noun, Geist, or what many would translate now as “Holy Spirit.” [pause for drop in] After a bracing, strengthening fugue, it ends with a quietly confident, reflective chorale on the words “Lord, through your strength prepare us … so that we might battle here nobly, pressing towards you through death and life.” [pause for drop in]
Remember, you can find a complete translation of this motet from Boston’s Emmanuel Music at Classical WCRB dot org.
Here is a performance of Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, or The Spirit gives aid to our weakness. John Eliot Gardiner leads the Monteverdi Choir, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 226]
John Eliot Gardiner first encountered the Bach’s motets when he was a boy soprano. He says that, by age 12, he knew the treble parts for all of them more or less by heart. Those early sonic imprints, followed by many years of living with these works are at the heart of this performance of the motet Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, or The Spirit gives aid to our weakness, with Gardiner directing his Monteverdi Choir.
If you have a sonic image that comes to mind when you hear the name “Bach,” chances are that it’s along the lines of a solo violin, or a pipe organ, or perhaps a choir. One of the less likely instruments would be, I’m guessing, the mandolin. That may change now, though.
Avi Avital is a champion for his chosen instrument, one that’s more likely to be found – in this country – in a bluegrass band than in a classical music concert.
For Avital, though, these manufactured categories of music just don’t hold much water, and you can trace that approach back to his earliest years, growing up in his hometown of Beer Sheva, in Israel.
Avi Avital 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 was Moroccan Jewish style. And that is the sound of my childhood, I think.
Brian McCreath So how is it that as a young boy, you ended up with a 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 I can only imagine. That's quite a sight to put it in my mind there.
Avi Avital And I joined them because one of my neighbors actually in Be'er Sheva played the mandolin. It was one of these, like, building apartments where all the doors are open and all the, your neighbors are more close than your relatives, even. And everyone is in everyone's house. It's like, it 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 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 Avital’s initial enthusiasm quickly turned into serious ability, and he ended up studying in Italy, the spiritual home of the mandolin. Along the way, along with all the folk music, Moroccan Jewish liturgical music, and Italian baroque masters like Vivaldi, the music of one particular composer continued to provide a foundation for Avital. So much so that the music by this one composer make up his debut album on the Deutsche Grammophon label, released in 2012.
Avi Avital Bach has something in his music which is unique. We all know that, right? It's almost too banal to say. But it's so universal and so absolute that I think it crosses every boundary of instrument. If you hear a Bach piece on any instrument - piano, accordion, you name it - you immediately hear it's Bach. Beyond that, 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 includes 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 for me to choose Bach for the debut album.
[MUSIC – BWV 1034-4]
Brian McCreath That’s mandolinist Avi Avital and colleagues, in Avital’s first recording for Deutsche Grammophon. That was the finale of Bach’s Sonata in E minor, originally for flute.
Another work on the same release is Bach’s dramatic D minor concerto. It was originally written for violin – which is a version that’s been lost to history – and later re-written for harpsichord, it was even used as the basis for a virtuosic organ solo in the Cantata 146. For Avital, that rich history opens up an opportunity.
Avi Avital I felt that in this concerto, the mandolin is somewhere between the violin and the harpsichord, and it can take the qualities from both kind of philosophies and offer really something new. So, what I was trying to create is a fresh sound. I mean, personally, I remember, literally, when the seed was planted to make this recording. It was just maybe five years ago, before even I lived in Berlin. And I was there for a concert tour and I was looping this concerto on my iPod, like, for hours. The whole trip was this D minor concerto. I kind of rediscovered it. That was the soundtrack of the whole week. And then I said, Wow, I have to play this piece of music.
Brian McCreath And here is mandolinist Avi Avital, with Chamber Academy Potsdam, in the Concerto in D minor, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 1052]
J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D minor, originally for violin, later arranged in versions for harpsichord and for organ, and here played by mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital, with Chamber Academy Potsdam.
You can hear my entire conversation with Avi Avital at our website, Classical WCRB dot org, where you’ll also find a video of Avital performing in our Fraser studio. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.
Let’s return now to Bach’s motets, specifically Fürchte dich nicht. Like the motet you heard earlier, it begins with a light musical footprint, with words from the divine to reassure the believer: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God.” The second half of that phrase is driven home with repetition, which you’ll hear as the choir sings, over and over, “weiche nicht.” [pause] The choir shifts about mid-way through the piece to take a joyful but meditative tone for the response of the believer before a concluding, forceful restatement of assurance from the voice of the divine. [pause]
find a complete translation of this motet from Boston’s Emmanuel Music at Classical WCRB dot org.
Here is Fürchte dich nicht. John Eliot Gardiner leads the Monteverdi Choir, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 228]
Bach’s motet Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, or Fear not, for I am with you, in a concert performance in London by the Monteverdi Choir and their founder and director, John Eliot Gardiner.
Remember, you can hear this program again on demand when you visit Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear the 24/7 Bach Channel.
Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.