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A Vital Interview


Avi Avital, rescuer of the mandolin. (Jean-Baptiste Millet photo) The Celebrity Series of Boston will present mandolinist Avi Avital, accordionist Ksenija Sidorova, and percussionist Itamar Doari for an exploration of the borders between folk and classical musics. As part of their “Between Worlds” tour, they will perform, on Friday March 11th at 8pm at Jordan Hall, works by Kreisler, Bach, Villa-Lobos, and Bartók, along with traditional Turkish and Israeli works.

BMInt had a lot of questions for the verbal, vital Avital.

 LE: You have an uncanny ability to translate virtually any musical idea into mandolinese, which is almost as difficult as translating it into Mandarinese. Do you employ a staff of arrangers?

AA: To a certain extent, though most of the arrangements I do myself. Actually most of the pieces that I play couldn’t really be called arrangements; they’re more adaptions. When I take pieces written for violin or flute or any melodic instrument, I just normally play straight from the scores. I don’t like to change the notes that a composer wrote, but rather think how I would serve the music as it was written the best on my instrument. When that requires a little more treatment, like the concerto for harpsichord by Bach that I arranged for mandolin, there was a bit more musicological work behind it, because you have to reduce all the lines of two hands, very busy two hands, to a single line. There I had to kind write out the arrangement. But most of the time I like things that I don’t have to change too much from the text.

So you sometimes just ignore the directions as to the instrumentation, but in this Sidirova Doari Avital Trio for instance, how much of that is originally for the three instruments?

Absolutely nothing!

And so there’s a lot of arranging there and a lot of adaptation. This is a very unique program compared with much of what I do. I’m a classically trained mandolin player, and most of my concerts throughout the year are classical music. But throughout my life I had curiosity toward other genres. Ten years ago, it was klezmer that opened a window to Balkan music, that I began to perform a lot, and still sometimes I play jazz. The thing that hit me when starting to play klezmer with a guru clarinetist (named Sideman ) was a feeling of going onstage, without stands, without a part, without a score, to just improvise and feel what is happening in the hall at every given moment and go with that—that’s a very exotic feeling for someone who was classically trained. I now take a lot of that rhythm into the concert hall when I play a classical recital, and vice-versa: when I play a set with my Balkan music trio in a little Brooklyn little jazz club, I take a lot of the classical finesse into that as well.

Itamar Doari (file photo)
Percussionist Itamar Doari (file photo)

I used to do either classical concerts or, more rarely, projects that are more a kind of folk music—especially Jewish music and Balkan music—and in this program, for the first time, I combined the two worlds. And to amplify the two sides of it, I have on my left a classical accordionist and to my right a world-music percussionist, to bring those two sides of identity complex on stage in a single program. When I say identity complex it’s not only myself but the instrument that I’m playing on which enjoys this kind of chameleon aspect of being a classical instrument. Yes, it’s a classical Italian instrument, yet by associations it is very much connected to folk music.

When you say it’s classical, it usually has a folk role in a classical piece. When Mozart has the mandolin playing, it is actually supporting one of the actors on stage.

That is a misconception. Of course it comes from other instruments that are related to folk music. The mandolin developed from a Renaissance instrument called mandola. From France it became adopted into the Medici court, and very quickly it became the instrument of aristocracy. It was associated with amateur playing of aristocrats and especially young maidens, much as the harp and the harpsichord. That was the instrument that they played as their classical education. You know it’s a salon instrument. A lot of people think it is a kind of street and folk instrument, but if you take a mandolin that was built in the 17th or 18th century, it doesn’t really ring, its sound doesn’t develop unless you play it in a big salon. As another evidence, most of the paintings from the 17th century and the 18th century, where you see a mandolin, it’s usually held by a young aristocrat maiden, and all are full of decoration of mother of pearl and some gold in the pegs, highly decorated. So the mandolin was actually an aristocratic instrument and Mozart was extremely smart to put the mandolin in the hands of Don Giovanni, an aristocrat.

I didn’t mean to suggest that it had a folk role in Mozart, but that it really was essential for the character of the Don in that moment to be playing a mandolin.

Exactly: some special context here is that this is something that symbolized a good education, a well-educated aristocrat girl. And this song where he uses the mandolin is called “Deh vieni alla finestra”. It’s a temptation song that he sings to a young maiden he sees from the street. So there’s this purity of the mandolin associated with this kind of figure, and this aristocracy as reflected by Don Giovanni’s character is all very specific, although many of them used to keep the role of the mandolin as a kind of straight folk musician from Naples. And that became true only some 200 years later than the time of the opera, when it became popular for the people in Italy at beginning of the 20th century.

I was getting at the fact that Mozart didn’t use the mandolin in any absolute instrumental music, he used it as its intended role for the Don.

Exactly. That’s because it wasn’t considered entirely a classical, you know, a professional classical orchestral or opera instrument; it was at that time more associated with amateur playing. That’s I think why he didn’t write other things but chose a specific moment to use it.

*  *  *

Going back to your repertoire, I can’t find anything on Nicolai Budashkin, whose concerto you are offering. Now is that a piece that was actually written as a mandolin concerto or is that a transcription?

It’s very interesting with Nicolai Budashkin, although I tried to research a lot about him, I couldn’t find anything. When you hear it for the first time, you already know the melody. It’s a very Russian folk tune, written in a virtuosic fashion with a little bit of elaborated harmony progression. I know it from my first teacher, who was Russian, and since his death I’ve had a handwritten version from his teacher. That’s how they kind of copied the music when he studied in St Petersburg. So it was never published, but it’s an extremely famous piece among domra players. Domra is the Russian version of the mandolin. A folk instrument, like the balalaika.

So then that isn’t a transcription? That was written for the mandolin.

It was written for domra, which is similar to the mandolin, but it’s also specific for Russian folk music. It’s tuned the same but instead of 8 strings it has 4 strings and it’s shaped differently, and the sound is also very particular for Russian folk repertoire.

So you can’t do the same tremolo with one string per note on the domra as you can with two on the mandolin?

Yeah, they use it also a lot. It’s just a different sound. I mean, the two strings on the mandolin is what creates the little bit of chorus effect.

Ksenija Sidorova (file photo)
Ksenija Sidorova (file photo)

So that isn’t very arranged. The instruments are quite similar.

As far as we know, it was written for domra or mandolin and piano. We took the piano part, of course. We added to a lot of the pieces we’re playing. The experiment was to take pieces that have the same theme, or relate to a group of composers who were active more or less in the the first half of the 20th century, many inspired by their own folk traditions. For example, Bartok’s Romanian folk dances result from research that he did collecting those melodies from village people all over the Balkans, and the same thing for Spanish music de Falla, and Brazilian music for Villa-Lobos. Bohemian and Moravian and even American composers started to use these before the Second World War to develop local classical music language. [But] they avoided the specific code of classical music as many just took local material and made concert music out of it.

Imagine sitting in a piano recital at Carnegie Hall 100 years ago, listening to the usual repertoire of that time, when suddenly these six Romanian folk dances with the odd meters and exotic scales that until that moment existed only in the countryside in Romania. That must have been extremely modern and advanced and exciting and exotic in the context of the concert hall.

A hundred years later, in 2016, if you say to anyone “a Romanian folk dance,” everyone has a vague idea of how that might sound. Because we live in a very privileged era, where we know much more about other cultures, and if we don’t we’re one click away of knowing any kind of music in the world.

What I tried to with this program is to preserve that modernity, this kind of, you bring something to the concert hall that was not there before, trying to preserve this idea of those composers like de Falla and Bartok and so forth, and translate them to our time, and the way I chose to do it, of course first of all through the mandolin. If you play Russian music on the mandolin it sounds Russian, if you play Italian music on the mandolin it sounds Italian, if you play American music on the mandolin it sounds American. Plus adding another two instruments that have this kind of dual identity of classical and folk instruments, like the accordion and the percussion, brings more of this folkloristic spice.

What’s Bach doing in the program? I can understand the relationships, and the period relationships, of all the rest of the musics, and the nationalistic love of the folk music, but Bach seems to jump out as not belonging in the context as much.

And it’s true if you look at the paper, but I hope you can come to the concert and agree that the Bach is integrated within a set of pieces that actually form one big piece. There’s a moment in the concert from the second piece to the intermission where we actually cruise from one to another attacca, and those are raw folk melodies, so without any treatment of any composer, Turkish folk melody, an Israeli, Azerbaijani folk melody, and a Bulgarian folk melody, and among them we integrated Bach in a very purified way.

And of course it’s just a single movement in each case.

Exactly, yes, so it’s one thing that lasts about 25 minutes where we cruise through this experiment of integration. We start with the Turkish melody and then to Bach and them to another folk melody and we go back to Bach and so forth and so on, and that’s the moment where we present the two elements separately, side by side and not together.

Should we trust you that this is really going to work?

Oh [laughter] yes, we’ve played this program 60 times already.

* * *

Are you using one instrument throughout, and is there more than one accordion, and can you describe those?

I use the same mandolin throughout the program, and accordion as well, and this is the nice thing to see, how from the same practically instrument you can hear different worlds, it’s all about the nuances and the rhetoric of the music and not the instrument per se. The percussionist brings a variety of perfectly Middle Eastern hand percussions, Mediterranean hand percussions to be more exact. And this is a set that allows each one of the pieces to have its own kind of color and combinations of percussions.

When you played the BEMF concert, my review [here] compared you to Jimi Hendrix, and everybody had a spectacular time except the three people out of 800 who complained that you were playing on metal instead of gut strings and hence it wasn’t historically correct. Do you run into that sort of literalism when you’re dealing with early-music types?

Very rarely, because from the first place I’m not coming with a philological ideal. I can’t, because if I was philological and had to record a Vivaldi CD, it would last 30 minutes because that’s all the original partitura that Vivaldi wrote. What interests me as an artist is to take music even by Baroque composers, Vivaldi, Bach, and make it work, interpret it in a concert hall, whether I play the mandolin or any other instrument. I don’t think it matters. The rhetorical matters and the good taste and serving the way a musician serves the music, so that it plays to the audience. So this is the interpretation. I appreciate the discussion, but whether they are gut strings or not this is not who I am as an artist.

And of course then if I play the “Summer” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a Baroque mandolin, there’s simply not enough notes or tones, it’s not something that was written for that instrument.

But it’s also historically correct not to be able to hear it.


A couple of years ago, when we last talked, I asked you how do you feel about the 1920s vaudeville mandolinist Bernardo De Pace? Have you had a chance to watch the YouTube clip I pointed you to? He’s dressed in a Pagliacci clown costume and it seems amazing technically and artistically.

I know exactly what you mean. It’s quite incredible that technique and the whole being, you see it’s for me Italian, you know, ultimate, the traditional mandolin playing in Italy brought to the highest level. Because when the instrument has become more and more popular throughout the century, it has a very interesting development from being an aristocrat instrument into bourgeois mandolin clubs and during the 19th century becoming kind of an instrument of the people and the 20th century—by the way, with a nationalist spirit that was in those years, there was an almost an artificial help to create the mandolin as “the national instrument of Italy.” Because there was that need in those years, everything was about nationalizing the culture.

At the period of time, and especially in Napoli, the instrument had become more and more integrated into the folk culture and was used for folk songs and Balkan folk songs and so on, but still also more in classical-sounding orchestras exclusively of mandolins. So this exactly I see in Pace integrating his finesse and virtuosity of classical music training with a kind of Italian commedia dell’arte, especially Neapolitan fantasy and comedy, talent brought to American in that time. It’s very fantastic, very authentic I find.

It would be embarrassing if it weren’t so good.

Yeah, exactly. No, it’s excellent. [Laughter]

 *  *  *

Talking about vaudeville, you had a trio with Israeli Harpist Sivan Magen and guitarist Nadav Lev.

We wanted to create the ultimate plucked-strings trio. So we thought the plucked equivalent of a string quartet or a woodwind quintet would be mandolin, guitar and harp, instruments from the same family yet very different from each other; they cover the whole range, and there was a lot of repertoire, relatively, written for this combination, for example by Hense or Petrassi, important composers in the second half of the 20th century and nowadays. So it was our tribute to this.

Sounds like a whole lot of pluckin’ going on, though not so much compared with the mandolin orchestras of the 1920s and ’30s in which there could there be 25 or 50 mandolins all plucking away.

Oh yeah. Sometimes more.

And there’s still some in Russia aren’t there?

There are a lot of mandolin orchestras, from Japan and the Philippines to all over the states and all over Europe practically. Actually, they are all over the world. I am no longer surprised that after my concerts, no matter where I play, there will be always somebody coming backstage and saying either he plays in a mandolin orchestra or her grandmother played in one.


Between Wolds Tour
Avi Avital, mandolin
Ksenija Sidorova, accordion
Itamar Doari, percussion
Friday, March 11, 2016, 8pm — Jordan Hall, NEC

Tickets start at $30 and are available online at, by calling CelebrityCharge at (617) 482-6661 Monday-Friday 10:00am-4:00pm, or at the Jordan Hall box office.



Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances (1881-1945)
I. Joc cu bata. Allegro moderato
II. Braul. Allegro
III. Pê-loc. Andante
IV. Buciumeana. Moderato
V. Poarga romaneasca. Allegro
VI. Maruntel. Allegro
Mandolin and Accordion

Traditional Turkish
Nacyem Nacyem
Mandolin and Percussion

J.S. Bach : Sonata No. 6 in G Major, S.1019
Mandolin and Accordion

Traditional Israeli
Mi Yitneni Of
Mandolin and Percussion

Bach: Overture in the French Style, S831
Accordion solo

Itamar Doari -Improvisation-

Traditional Bulgarian Bucimis
Mandolin and Percussion

Sulkhan Tsintsade: Three Miniatures on Georgian Themes (1925-1991)
Shepherd’s Dance
Dance Tune
Mandolin, Accordion, and Percussion

Ernest Bloch: “Nigun” from Baal-Shem (1880-1959)
Mandolin solo

Fritz Kreisler: Prelude and Allegro (1875-1962)
Mandolin and Accordion

Manuel de Falla: Six Spanish Folk Songs (1876-1946)
El Paño Moruno
Mandolin, Accordion, and Percussion

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Bacchianas Brasilerias (1887-1959)
Aria (Cantilena)
Mandolin and Accordion

Nikolai Budaskhin: Concerto in A minor (1910-1988)
Mandolin, Accordion, and Percussion



2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I like the way he doesn’t let the interviewer get away with trying to pigeonhole the mandolin as a folk instrument and emphasises the fact that it crossed many boundaries throughout its history. Good to see his eclectic approach and sense of carrying on a tradition of exploring and recreating the new from the old.

    Comment by Eoin — February 22, 2016 at 4:32 pm

  2. It is nice to be reminded by the intelligent interviewer and the fabulous musician’s answers, that smart, daring, adventurous artists are rare. Though there are not many world-class mandolin players today, Avital continues to distinguish himself as a charismatic, virtuosic, fearless explorer.

    Comment by Ari Frankel — March 8, 2016 at 8:41 pm

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