The mandolin as we know it came into existence in 17th and 18th century Italy. At that time, there were various instruments all called mandolin, but they looked and sounded slightly different and they had different tunings. For example, the mandolin in Venice, which Vivaldi wrote his concerto for, had five or six double gut strings and was quite a different instrument from the Neapolitan mandolin, which is the mandolin we all know today.
Avi Avital. Photo © Jean-Baptiste Millot / DG
We could count the famous composers who wrote for mandolin literally on one hand. Vivaldi wrote a total of four pieces (and just to illustrate, for the bassoon he wrote 36!) Mozart used the mandolin only in Don Giovanni for the Don’s famous serenade, which indicates the social context of the mandolin at this time. Beethoven wrote four little sonatas for a young maiden that he was in love with. So the mandolin was popular as a salon instrument, but not as a classical concert instrument, and because it was an amateur instrument, major composers didn’t write for it. That meant the technique didn’t develop because players were not challenged, and instrument makers didn’t need to improve it, because the repertoire didn’t demand it.
I had two identity crises as a mandolin player growing up. I had my musical education in Israel where we didn’t really have a mandolin teacher. My mandolin teacher in Be’er Sheva was a violinist who came from St Petersburg. I told him, OK, I’m a mandolinist but I play violin repertoire, can you teach me? And he agreed because he was intrigued and challenged, but when I graduated from the academy in Jerusalem my final recital was all violin repertoire. The day after my graduation recital, I thought ‘now this is life, study has ended, what do I do? I am a mandolin player, but I am a mandolin player who plays only violin repertoire. How can I build a career out of that?’ I resolved this first crisis by going to Italy. I studied mandolin with a professor who researched all the libraries and dug up a lot of original repertoire for the mandolin. I was playing all these pieces, and then came my second crisis, because, honestly, 95 percent of these pieces were not interesting.
Something needed to be done to change the course of history for the mandolin, and one of my inspirations was Andrés Segovia. When you look at the classical guitar, a hundred years ago it was in a similar state. He decided to go to all the composers of his generation and ask them to write for the guitar. So, I decided to go to composers to convince them, to ask them, and to commission them to write for the mandolin, so that in a hundred years people can look back and say now there is a repertoire for the instrument.
First, I asked all my teachers at the music academy. I had two idealistic friends – a guitarist and a harpsichord player – and we decided to make this plucked string ensemble, a little bit like copying a string quartet or a woodwind quintet by taking instruments from the same family to play original music. So, we went to Israel’s most important composers and we commissioned 12 pieces for this ensemble, which we played around the world for the next five years.
That really encouraged me because I saw there was interest, both from the composers and from the audience, to hear more. Gradually it grew into commissioning internationally acclaimed composers, many of whom were now open to write for the mandolin – people like Avner Dorman who wrote me a mandolin concerto and David Bruce who wrote me a piece with a very strong folkloric element in it, which I will play with Musica Viva. It’s called Cymbeline and is inspired by the God of the Sun. The latest piece we’ll perform in Australia is by Elena Kats-Chernin. I can only tell you the title, Orfeo, because I haven’t played it yet, but there are quotes from the Monteverdi opera. As premieres go it will be number 97 – so I’m almost at 100!
After this I have other plans. I’ve been working with Giovanni Sollima on a concerto that will be premiered in 2018 and I’m talking with Jennifer Higdon about a new concerto. Let’s say that I have a list. And it’s a long one.
Avi Avital is on tour with the Giocoso String Quartet for Musica Viva from April 7 – 24