City Recital Hall, Sydney
October 26, 2016

With the mien of a rock star and the technique of a virtuoso, Israeli-born mandolinist Avi Avital is an incredibly engaging performer. It is no wonder, then, that the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra brought him back to Australia after only two years away. While the concert in 2014 focussed on Bach, in this offering Avital and the ABO explored the music of Vivaldi – with a few surprises thrown in – on a stage decorated with candles and hung with luminous stained glass lanterns.

In the first half of the concert Avital was used sparingly, his performances alternating with two works for the nine-musician-strong ABO alone, the ensemble opening proceedings with a lively rendition of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Strings in C Major, RV 110. The Allegro brimmed with energy, the dynamics neatly gradated. Artistic Director and harpsichordist Paul Dyer entwined chords from the strings with soloistic flourishes in the Largo before the vibrant – yet stately – final movement brought the concerto to a close with a perfectly synced lighting change on the cut-off.

Avi Avital and Paul Dyer, photo © Steven Godbee

Valentini’s Concerto Grosso in A minor, Op. 7, No 11, was an Australian premiere. A work Dyer apparently unearthed in Italy, the ensemble performed the first four of the concerto’s six movements opening with the melancholy Largo. The second movement, launched with Fugue entries in the violins, featured furious low string lines while the final two movements saw solos passed across the ensemble – lyrical in the Grave and boisterous in the Allegro – running passages shooting from one instrument to another in playful sport. If intonation in the violins suffered slightly in the more energetic passages, it didn’t detract from the hell-for-leather verve of the finale.

Avital, however, was the star of the show, and it was his performances that made the night, first joining the ensemble for Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor, Op. 3 No 6 from L’estro Armonico – arranged for mandolin by Avital himself. Avital’s charisma as a performer was immediately apparent, the mandolinist sitting on a stool at the front of the stage – he never used music once during the concert – swaying to the music and almost leaping to his feet at the climaxes. But it wasn’t just his stage presence that drew the audience in – his playing was fine and incredibly nuanced. The Largo was particularly beautiful, Avital’s subtly shaped phrases supported by magically sustained strings. His biting tone gilded the fortes of the Presto, his passage work a lively display of sparkling articulation.

Avital brought the audience into the 20th century to close the first half of the concert with Sulkhan Tsintsadze’s Six Miniatures on Georgian Folk Themes for Mandolin and Strings. Avital jammed like a guitarist on the slides and tremolos of the Shepherd’s Dance and accompanied the romantic string melodies of Suliko’s love-song with his instrument’s throaty low register and quirky, plucking accompaniments. Indi-Mindi alternated bubbling virtuosity with more wistful passages while the cello-drone of Sachidao kicked off a rhythmic, wrestling-inspired movement in which the strings imitate Georgian folk instruments before the final strumming Dance Tune rounded out the suite.

The second half of the concert was all Avital, all the time, opening with Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C Major, RV 425. Avital showed off his flexible tone once more in the first movement, duetting with Baroque Cellist Jamie Hey. Avital’s sparse broken chords in the Largo, accompanied by pizzicato strings, were so soulfully shaped that the occasional scalic passages triggered frissons, while the final Allegro danced with unforced pleasure.

Giovanni Paisiello’s Mandolin Concerto, the concert’s only foray into the Classical Period, felt worlds away, Avital leaning into the sudden shifts from Major to Minor, the lighting fading out the ensemble to leave the mandolinist on stage alone for the cadenza.

Capping off the concert was Vivaldi’s Summer from The Four Seasons, another of Avital’s arrangements. The work, at least in the hands of a musician like Avital, translates remarkably well as a mandolin concerto. The slow, haunting introduction had an improvisatory feel, the stage lit red, before Avital launched into the heat-haze scrubbing of strings with gusto. His tremolos sustained the melodies of the Adagio while his technique was more than equal to the demands of the stunning descending runs of the finale, headbanging along to the dramatic passages.

Overall this was a stunning concert by an incredible musician. While the lighting was a tad over-done at times – lighting changes with every movement became a distraction rather than an enhancement of the experience – it still helped create an intimate and vivid ambience. Avital played his second encore, the Bulgarian folk dance Bucimis under a spot, the atmosphere not unlike an acoustic set in a small intimate bar.


Avi Avital and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra tour Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane until November 8

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