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Avi Avital: Tiny Desk Concert

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11 min 04 sec

September 10, 2012 Avital has the long, slender fingers of a concert pianist. Yet instead of stretching chords out wide on a Steinway, he squeezes those lengthy digits onto the tiny fretted fingerboard of a mandolin. The instrument today is associated with bluegrass and western swing, but in Avital's hands, the mandolin sings with the sounds of J.S. Bach, Ernest Bloch and contemporary composers.

Other than bluegrass virtuosos like Ricky Skaggs, players of the mandolin don't often get taken very seriously. But a young Israeli musician named Avi Avital is trying to change that. He's not a bluegrass star; instead, his mandolin sings with the sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ernest Bloch and contemporary composers like Avner Dorman.

Avital's recording of a mandolin concerto by Dorman gave the instrument a little boost in 2010, when Avital became the first mandolinist to be nominated for a Grammy in the Best Instrumental Soloist category. The concerto was an Avital commission: The mandolinist feels strongly about challenging today's composers "to consider the mandolin as a virtuoso instrument, and use its great sonorities and the immense palette of colors and expressions it can produce." You can hear a lot of those colorful sonorities in this Tiny Desk performance.

Avital also adheres to the old "necessity is the mother of invention" axiom. Since mandolin compositions aren't thick on the ground, he arranges pieces written for other instruments — especially the violin, as the two instruments share the same tuning — and makes them his own.

Such is the case with Avital's opening piece, "Nigun." Written by Ernest Bloch in 1923 for violin and piano, the music is a deep exploration, the composer says, of the Jewish soul. Avital's arrangement, like the original, pivots between the ecstatic and the introspective, rising in intensity (and pitch) until finally disappearing in a mist of quietly plucked notes.

Avital caps off the performance with "Bucimis," a raucous Bulgarian folk tune in the odd meter of 15/16. "It's almost 4/4, but not quite," he says. "I can play it, but I can't dance it."

How does one become a world-class, award-winning classical mandolinist? Avital says it all started as a kid, as he admired an older neighbor boy who took mandolin lessons. When the neighbor traded up to a newer, better instrument, "somehow his old beginner's mandolin ended up in my hands." Good thing it did.

Set List:
  • "Nigun" (Ernest Bloch)
  • "Bucimis" (Traditional Bulgarian Folk Tune)
Credits:

Producer: Tom Huizenga; Editor: Bob Boilen; Videographer: Michael Katzif; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; photo by Michael Katzif/NPR

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