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Avi Avital: A Mandolinist's Unlikely Education

Mandolinist Avi Avital's new album Bach was released June 12. (Deutsche Grammophon)

Avi Avital is one of the world's leading classical mandolinists, gracing concert halls from Tel Aviv to Munich to New York. But the young Israeli says he discovered the mandolin only by coincidence.

"When I was a kid, I had a neighbor who played the mandolin — the neighbor from upstairs," Avital tells NPR's Guy Raz. "It was one of those buildings where all the doors are open and all the neighbors are friends and more close than relatives. It was like one big family.

"I arrived to the age where I wanted to do something after school, and I liked music very much, so when my mother asked me, 'What would you like to play?' I said, 'Mandolin, like my neighbor.'"

Avital says it was also a coincidence that he was able to learn to play classical mandolin in his hometown of Beersheba, a small city in the desert of southern Israel.

"Funny enough, there is a mandolin orchestra there in Beersheba and that's where I grew up musically," he says. "We had a mandolin teacher, Simcha Nathanson. He himself was a violin professor back in Russia and he came to apply for a job in the local conservatory as a violin teacher. But they told him, 'We're sorry, we have a violin professor already, but, if you want, we have like 30 mandolins in the basement — we got some kind of donation. You can teach those.'"

Avital credits his musical dexterity to this unorthodox education — learning the mandolin from violinists.

"Because [Nathanson] was a violin teacher — and afterwards when I went to grad school, to the music academy in Jerusalem, I also had a violin professor because there was no mandolin teacher — I ended up playing all the violin repertoire on the mandolin," Avital says. "I think, looking back, it was actually an advantage for me because I got to learn pieces that require expertise and technique from the mandolin that you can't find in Vivaldi's mandolin concerto as it is. So it kind of forced me to squeeze out of this tiny instrument much more than usually one would be used to hearing."

Avital says his latest project — a new disc called Bach, which adapts music J.S. Bach wrote for other instruments, like the violin, oboe or harpsichord, to the mandolin — is in that same creative spirit.

"Obviously when you take a piece written for harpsichord originally, it's more about adaptations," he says. "The challenge, for example, in these concertos was to find the essence of the music because, obviously, the harpsichord plays with both hands — he has the left hand — and just to find the essence of the music, of the melody, what's the most important part in the concerto, and that's how I went with the transcriptions."

But Avital says Bach's artistry made that an easy task.

"There is something about the music of Bach which sets him apart from any other composer that I know," he says. "It is so absolute and so divine and so universal, that the instrument you play on ... is not really the main thing that matters. In other words, if you hear Bach's music on any instrument, it's probably one of the few composers that you immediately recognize — It's Bach! — and it's as powerful as for whatever instrument it's written originally."

And it's not just Bach that Avital is reinterpreting. He says he follows his imagination wherever it takes him, from Israeli jazz to Balkan klezmer.

"That's the most the most exciting thing about being a mandolin player, or, at least the way that I see it," Avital says. "Practically it's like I'm walking on a path that I'm inventing every day. I'm just working on a project with three wonderful Israeli jazz musicians — Omer Avital, bass and oud, and Omer Klein, pianist and percussionist Itamar Doari — that's going to debut in September at Musikfest Bremen. And I have another trio playing more klezmer and Balkan music, so I'm really trying to be very wide about the kind of repertoire and music genres that I'm playing and always rediscovering the mandolin I'm holding, redefining it all over, again and again."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

And it's time now for music. And if you thought you knew what the mandolin was capable of doing, you know, things like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: ...or this...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: ...or this...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: ...well, take a listen to this, because it is actually what the mandolin was made for.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: This is Bach, as arranged for the mandolin. And the man behind this mandolin, Avi Avital. He lives in Berlin now, but he was born and raised in the southern desert city of Beersheba in Israel. That's where Avi Avital started playing mandolin. And after a few years, he went to the ancestral home of the instrument, Italy, to study with a master. And there, he was told to learn the mandolin all over again, go back to playing scales, for a whole year. Avi Avital is now considered one of the true innovators of the mandolin, and his latest record is titled quite simply, "Bach."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Avi Avital, welcome to the program.

AVI AVITAL: Thank you.

RAZ: How does a kid from Beersheba end up with a mandolin in his hands?

AVITAL: By coincidence, of course. I mean, when I was a kid growing up in Israel, I had a neighbor. It was one of these buildings where all the doors are open and all the neighbors are like a one big family. And, yeah, one of my neighbors played the mandolin. So when my mother asked me, what would you like to play? I said, mandolin, like my neighbor.

RAZ: Well, I guess we should explain that where you grew up is essentially the biggest town in Israel in the desert, in the middle of the desert, more or less.

AVITAL: Yes, it's true. More or less. It's true.

RAZ: Not many mandolin players there, I gather.

AVITAL: Funny enough, there is a mandolin orchestra there in Beersheba. We had a mandolin teacher, Simcha Nathanson, who's a Russian immigrant. He came Beersheba in the '70s. He himself was a violin professor back in Russia. And he came to apply for a job in the local conservatory, but they told him: We're sorry. We have a violin professor already. But if you want, we have, like, 30 mandolins in the basement we got some kind of donation. You can teach those.

RAZ: I understand that because of Nathanson, you actually learned how to play the mandolin as if it were a violin.

AVITAL: Yes. I ended up playing all the violin repertoire on the mandolin. I think, looking back, it was actually an advantage for me because I got to learn pieces that requires specificity and technique from the mandolin. It kind of forced me to squeeze out of this tiny instrument much more than usually one would be used to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You have transcribed Bach for mandolin on your new record. First of all, why Bach? I mean, he was writing for violin and flute and harpsichord and other instruments. So why did you decide to take on his work?

AVITAL: There is something about the music of Bach, which sets him apart from any other composer that I know, that is so absolute and so divine and so universal that the instrument is not really the main thing that matters. In other words, if you hear Bach music on any instrument, it's probably one of the few composers that you immediately recognize as Bach, and it's as powerful as whatever instrument it's written originally for.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: I'm speaking with mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital. His new record is called "Bach." Avi, you are in our New York studios right now, but I understand that you have a mandolin with you. Is that right?

AVITAL: Yes.

RAZ: Can you play us something?

AVITAL: Of course.

RAZ: And let us know what you're going to play.

AVITAL: I'm going to play a very short prelude from the cello suite by Johann Sebastian Bach. It's the first cello suite in G major, and on mandolin, it's in D major, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRELUDE TO BACH'S CELLO SUITE NO. 1")

RAZ: That's the mandolin player Avi Avital playing the prelude from Bach's "Cello Suite No. 1." He's just released an entire album of Bach transcriptions. It's called, what else? "Bach." What do you want to see happen with the mandolin? Where do you want to take it?

AVITAL: You know, that's the most exciting thing about being a mandolin player, or at least the way that I see it. It's like I'm walking on a path that I'm inventing every day, actually. And, of course, I think the mandolin is not an instrument you go usually and hear in concert halls. And so, of course, one of my wishes is to introduce it again to the concert hall, because it used to be a very popular instrument in the baroque era, at least, and just working on a project with three wonderful Israeli jazz musicians that's going to debut in September.

And I have another trio playing more Klezmer and Balkan music. So I'm really trying to be very wide about the kind of repertoire in the music channels that I'm playing and always rediscovering the mandolin I'm holding, redefining it.

RAZ: Well, Avi, before we let you go, I understand that you have one more song that you can play for us.

AVITAL: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: This one is called "Nigun from Baal Shem." I will say goodbye to you before you play it. So thank you so much for coming in. Avi Avital's new record is called "Bach." Avi, thank you so much for coming in. And I look forward to hearing this next track.

AVITAL: Thank you very much.

RAZ: And if you'd like to hear the entire performance, go to our website, nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGUN FROM BAAL SHEM")

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. On tomorrow's program, making it on the minimum wage. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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