For many, the mandolin might typically conjure up images of American bluegrass music or traditional Neapolitan songs like “O Sole Mio.” But Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital has been making people rethink the instrument. His music, which ranges from classical to folk to klezmer, has made a big splash; even though he’s still under 35, he’s already performed in some of the most prestigious concert halls around the world, including Carnegie Hall, London’s Wigmore Hall, and Beijing’s Forbidden City Concert Hall. He's also the first mandolin player ever nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Instrumental Soloist(s)” category.
Avital’s journey surely was far from expected because very few, if any, classical pieces have been written specifically for mandolin. So why did he end up choosing it? “When I was a kid,” Avital says, “That was the instrument that ended up in my hands. God’s bizarre sense of humor. So what can I do? Just play amazing music and adapt it to the mandolin.”
His latest adaptation, Bach, is a collection of works from the German composer that Avital himself arranged. In conceptualizing the album, Avital wanted to challenge himself a little more. “What really puts him apart from any other composer that I know,” he notes about Bach, “Is that his music is so absolute. Really, it works on any instrument.” Avital typically chooses violin music in his adaptations because the tuning corresponds to the mandolin’s, but he challenged himself on this album, selecting pieces written for instruments that don't translate easily to mandolin.
In the studio, Avital performed a partial rendition of “Bach’s Flute Sonata in E Minor, BWV 1034.” The composition was originally arranged for flute and basso continuo, but Avital here interprets it for mandolin and harp. The musician told us that he constantly strives to redefine and push his instrument’s boundaries. “I think the mandolin is an instrument still to be discovered,” he says. “I feel that with every new piece that I’m playing, I’m discovering a new piece of the instrument.”