Avi Avital, mandolin; Playhouse, January 12, 2014


Some musicians, perhaps slightly offhandedly, have referred to 2013 as the ‘Year of the Accordion’; more distinguished critics have now sounded the trumpet that 2014 will be the ‘Year of the Mandolin’.  And, from this perspective, what better way could there be to start the year by an appearance of the 35-year old Grammy-winning, Israeli mandolinist, Avi Avital, an artist strongly committed to building a fresh legacy for the mandolin by transcribing traditional and modern compositions for this instrument and by commissioning new works.  The concert coincided with the release of the artist’s second CD for Deutsche Grammophon, ‘Between Worlds’.

On the basis of this showing, Avi Avital is a truly strong and inspired advocate for this often- neglected instrument.  He has enviable control over the instrument’s resources, and can bring a power and range to the mandolin’s expression that I would have not thought possible.  This was certainly evident in the two ‘spectacular’ works on the program Yasuo Kuwahara’s modern composition ’Improvised Poem’ and the artist’s encore ‘Bucimis’, based on Bulgarian folk tunes.  Here the sheer complexity of what he was doing is almost indescribable, set alongside a rock-solid rhythmic sense and ability to produce record-setting levels of volume. 

The transcription of Bartok’s Rumanian Folk Dances was also very successful.  While I love these short pieces on the violin, especially in the third piece, ‘Pe Loc’, the mandolin was able to bring a more exotic feeling, with more mystery and wonder.  Manuel de Falla’s earthy ‘Siete Canciones Populares Espanoles’, accompanied very alertly by pianist Michael Brown, naturally brought more fire from the artists, ably demonstrating just how clean and exact Avital’s articulation is, and also showing his control over dynamics. A number of these pieces involve tremolo, and ‘Asturiana’ in particular showed just how atmospheric this can be.

The opening transcription of Bach’s (Violin) Partita No. 2, the longest work on the program, raised some questions however.  First, I still am not completely convinced that the mandolin can capture all the little nuances that the violin does.  But, I am also convinced that, after a fairly literal start, the mandolinist got better as the work progressed, bringing a greater natural fluency  and momentum, and a stronger sense of the rise and fall in phrases, as we approached the famous closing Chaconne.   Still, I found this to be pretty objective and forthright Bach overall.  For an alternative, we must turn to another wonderful mandolinist on the rise, Chris Thile, whose traversal of this composer seemingly has more intimacy, space and wonder, sometimes almost as if one were eavesdropping on a private conversation.

For the first ever mandolin recital in the history of the Vancouver Recital Society, this concert was a remarkable success.  I, and the rest of the sold-out audience, might have thought that it would be difficult to listen to a mandolin non-stop for well over an hour, but the variety in the program certainly changed our opinion and gave us renewed interest in the instrument.  Now who do we invite for the rest of the year?


© Geoffrey Newman 2014


Avi Avital