VIDEO: Israeli artist raises humble mandolin to new heights

Israeli mandolin player Avi Avital is a mainstay of the world’s concert halls, where he interprets Bach, Vivaldi and other giants of the classical repertoire.

Not bad for a guy who plays what some consider an amateur folk instrument.

The Israeli-born artist embraces the humble origins of the mandolin, but sees it as his mission to show audiences just how far he can take the instrument.

Avi Avital recorded his new album, “Vivaldi,” in Venice. photo/deutsche grammophon-harald hoffmann

His current world tour brings him to the Bay Area on Wednesday, March 2, when he performs at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. Avital’s longtime colleagues, accordionist Ksenija Sidorova and percussionist Itamar Doari, will join him in a concert of folk-influenced music by Bartók, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Ernest Bloch and others. They may even try an improvisation or two.

“When I perform with my trio, I try to bring the finesse of classical music into the jazz club,” Avital, 38, said from his home in Berlin. “It starts as an encounter of the two worlds of music that accompanied my life. I’m classically trained in mandolin, and most of my concerts are classical music. But I always had interests in other genres of music.”

Those interests varied from rock to klezmer to the Arab-influenced Moroccan Jewish liturgical music of his forebears. Though he went through a phase as a rock guitarist back in high school, Avital set his sights on mastering the mandolin after joining a mandolin youth orchestra in his hometown of Beersheva.

That led to studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and, later, a conservatory in Padua, Italy. Over the years he has performed around the world, from Salzburg to New York City’s Lincoln Center. Avital’s latest album, recorded in Venice, includes Vivaldi’s two concertos written for mandolin, and his Four Seasons, reimagined for the mandolin.

Avital relishes the universality of his plucky little instrument.

“The mandolin was originally a classical instrument related to a specific era in Italy,” he said. “Nevertheless, people associate it with folk music, whether bluegrass in America, or its similarity to the [sound of the] Greek bouzouki and Russian balalaika. Those are dialects of the same language.”

While recording in Venice, Avital took time to wander the streets of the city’s former Jewish ghetto, the oldest in Europe. He says his Jewish and Israeli identities are rarely separated from his identity as a musician, noting that many articles written about him begin with “Israeli mandolin player Avi Avital” (including this one).

“It’s something people view positively when talking about the context of art,” he said. “It’s something I’m very proud of, and it reflects my identity. The fact that I grew up with so many kinds of music, went to synagogue as a kid with my father, all sums up what I am today.”

He has found ways to blend his Jewish identity with music, typically by playing klezmer, which often features the mandolin as a solo instrument.

Once, he fused music and Judaism in an unexpected and starkly moving manner. In 2009, Avital and other Jewish musicians gathered at the site of the infamous 1942 Wannsee Conference, where top Nazi officials officially planned the Final Solution to exterminate European Jewry.

There the musicians recorded several works by Israeli composers, a fitting act of defiance and triumph in the face of a dark past.

“The action that took place there changed the history of my people forever and changed the energy of the place,” Avital said. “Of course it was an awfully emotional day for all of us. I was looking around at this place [which] was still cursed for me. By playing Jewish music there, we were changing the energy and purifying it. That was the feeling I had.”

That somber occasion aside, Avital prefers the joys of collaboration and music making. Over the years he has teamed up with many great artists, including Iranian harpsichord player Mahan Esfahani, an unlikely pairing in a world that sometimes isolates and boycotts Israeli artists.

“We are practicing now the future we want to live in,” Avital said of such collaborations. “Music is the one place to allows such encounters to happen.”

As for his upcoming Palo Alto appearance, Avital hopes his audience comes prepared for something eclectic.

“I’m curious to find the beauty of diversity in different kinds of music,” he said, “and this program very much celebrates this.”

Avi Avital, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2 at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $30-$55.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.