No one would dispute that the Lily Pad in Cambridge is one of the most versatile venues for musical programming, offering drum circles, jazz combos, and contemporary music — just as a small sampling. The unassuming room with its wide benches and bohemian décor was the backdrop on Sunday afternoon for one of the most profoundly artistic, welcoming, and stunning concerts I have ever attended. Avi Avital, rightful bearer of the title “mandolin virtuoso,” offered an astoundingly wonderful performance of works by Vivaldi, Bach, Bloch and Kuwahara, assisted by some of the best chamber players in Boston: Megumi Stohs Lewis, Gabriela Diaz, Russell Wilson, and Rafael Popper-Keizer.
In a recent Huffington Post article, Brooklyn Philharmonic CEO Richard Dare rehashed the call to make classical music less elitist, citing such “reverent” activities as holding applause between movements and other “imposing restrictions of ritual behavior.” I am not sympathetic with the idea that we should emulate the classical-music audiences of the 1890s, as the article implies, but I agree that the sense of reverent ritual can overpower the music itself. Avital presented a concert that was overwhelmingly comfortable rather than casual, delivering the highest level of artistry with affability, charm, and humility. Before the concert began, violinist Gabriela Diaz and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer chatted on stage as violist Russell Wilson handed his instrument over to an audience member who asked to see it. Avital greeted guests, welcoming friends to his own mandolin “Schubertiade.”
The boisterous Allegro of the Vivaldi Concerto in D Major, RV 93, originally written for lute, set the tone for the afternoon. Playing with the verve of a jazz combo, Lewis, Diaz, and Popper-Keizer (Wilson sat out the first piece) had an amazing sense of ensemble, one that belied that they do not regularly play with Avital. When a child cried briefly during the Largo, Avital smiled, happily plucking away over the gentle constancy of the violins. His phrasing is something to behold, as is his sense of dynamic contrast. The middle movement was elegant, with Popper-Keizer’s fantastic continuo and an impeccably synchronized ensemble. The final movement showcased Avital’s immense virtuosity and solid musicianship, with a well-matched sense of grace from the trio.
Avital’s astounding dynamic range is aided by his instrument, a custom-made mandolin by luthier Arik Kerman. But the expression and musicality is all Avital. In the liner notes to his new CD “Avi Avital—Bach,” to be released this coming Tuesday on the Deutsche Grammophon label, he writes: “Bach’s music is full of secrets. No matter how long you’ve been playing it, there is still something to discover every time. Using a different instrument allows you to hear its timelessness in a new way.” Avital does reveal Bach’s secrets, but humbly acknowledges that he is only a conduit of interpretation: “[Bach’s] music goes far beyond any given instrument.”
Avital included two Bach concerti on the program, both of which appear on the recording as well. The D Minor Concerto, BWV 1052r, originally for harpsichord, worked beautifully for mandolin. The switch from the initial dramatic tutti of the ensemble to Avital’s first episode was riveting — his lines cascaded with the utmost accuracy as smiles flashed across his face. It is clear that he took great care in his mandolin arrangement, allowing Bach’s counterpoint to stand front-and-center, but with a clear grasp of both the parts and the whole. The ensemble had an impeccable sense of timing and phrasing in the faster outer movements, and it was only in the Adagio where the phrasing of the lower strings sometimes clouded the dynamic nuances. Avital sat in the center of the ensemble, the eye of a musical storm, churning out the constant energy that radiated from the quartet. Every sequence had direction and meaning, not just a blithe repetition of motives to get from one point to another. The clarity of his passagework was spellbinding.
The quartet moved off to the side as Avital continued his program with two solo pieces. The first, “Nigun,” is the second movement of Ernest Bloch’s 1923 Baal Shem: Three Pictures from Hassidic Life, originally written for violin and piano (or orchestra). Here Avital’s tremolo had frenetic energy, and his work with the upper range of the instrument was intensely captivating. I had a hard time keeping my critic’s poker face as I leaned in to watch the blur of fingers move up and down the fretboard.
Japanese mandolin maestro Yasuo Kuwahara (1946-2003) composed the final solo piece on the program. Avital pushed the microphone back from his instrument, joking, “you’ll see why.…” Kuwahara’s Improvised Poem is a combination of Stravinsky’s rhythmic energy with Hendrix’s virtuosity (unplugged). In what one might call a fascinating display of “shredding” on the mandolin, Avital was electrifying to watch and hear. Popper-Keizer leaned in for a closer look, and the quartet seemed to enjoy being part of the audience as Avital created melody out of texture and expression out of ostinati. The more pointillist moments were as intimate and serene as the strumming was exhilarating and thrilling. Avital takes the listener to the brink of wildest expectation and then leaps over those boundaries. He jovially displayed his broken pick, quipping that the music came “at the cost of a plectrum every time.”
For the final work on the program, it was back to Bach — this time the Concerto in G minor, BWV 1056r. Avital’s facile transition back to the delicate Baroque concerto was supported by the quartet, which picked up as if it had never stopped playing. Megumi Stohs Lewis’s playing was particularly elegant in response to Avital’s gestures in the first movement. The pizzicato from the quartet was tender in the Largo, and the players all stayed back to give it over to Avital’s soulful evocation of Bach’s melody that he describes as “powerful yet not sentimental.” That phrase also aptly describes Avital’s general approach to his instrument; there is a solid power to his playing, even when he is at his most gentle and nuanced.
Avital was nominated for a Grammy award in 2010 for his recording of Avner Dorman’s Mandolin Concerto with Andrew Cyr and the Metropolis Ensemble and is fast realizing his goal to put “his beautiful yet distinctly unusual instrument firmly on to the musical map.” But he offers so much more than just really fine transcriptions. Avital is the consummate musician and performer whose level of skill and talent allows the music to be first and foremost. It is a shame that Sunday’s performance was his only Boston-area performance on the U.S. portion of this tour (he continues on to Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York); but those who were fortunate enough to witness it should take heart that reverence in classical music is sometimes truly merited and doesn’t have to come at the cost of honesty, soul and joy.