10 Questions For Christopher Acquavella

By Mandolin Cafe
September 12, 2010 - 8:30 pm

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Christopher Acquavella with his Brian N. Dean Mandolin. Photo credit: Gary Payne. Christopher Acquavella with his Brian N. Dean Mandolin. Photo credit: Gary Payne.

When the 2010 Classical Mandolin Society of America gathers for their annual convention in Seattle, Washington, October 13-17, 2010, they'll be meeting a new face at the helm of their Instructor's Workshop, and performances by the guitar and mandolin group Duo LaRé that may be unlike any they've witnessed.

Christopher Acquavella spent time in bluegrass, celtic, and an unlikely stint in a road-weary punk band before a move to London and subsequent degree from Trinity College of Music (graduating with First Class Honors) sent him on a career path that has propelled him into being recognized as one of the top classical mandolinists in the United States.

With a new recording on the way in October and a schedule packed with performances and teaching responsibilities, Chris is a rising music professional bringing vibrant sounds both old and new to the San Diego, California region where he makes his home.

In advance of Chris' appearances at the upcoming CMSA Convention we caught up with him to hear the latest on his career and plans for the future.

Listen while you read

Mtarija, by Duo LaRé, from their soon-to-be released recording In Other Words.

Mandolin Cafe: It must be rewarding to have your skills recognized by CMSA for next month's convention. What kind of material do you plan to cover in your sessions?

Christopher Acquavella: Absolutely! It is always great when people enjoy my playing and music. About two years ago I contacted the Seattle Mandolin Orchestra in regards to performing a concerto with them. After many emails back and forth, we decided that it just wasn't going to happen that year. Sometime later Martin Stillion from SMO contacted me asking if I would be interested in performing at the CMSA Convention. I was absolutely delighted and honored that they were interested in having me. The more I talked with Lou Chouinard (CMSA president) about the plans, the more I found myself getting involved. It all started with one performance. Now I am teaching a Mandolin Instructor Workshop, Right-Hand Technique Workshop, Classical Mandolin Repertoire. I will also work with the 1st mandolins for the En Mass Orchestra. Lou has an infectious personality and I am more than happy to make myself available for this organization and cool event. What are you waiting for? GET YOUR TICKETS NOW!!!

Chris Acquavella performs Fantasia No. 1 by Takashi Ochi

Mandolin Cafe: Is this your first exposure to CMSA?

Christopher Acquavella: This will be my first time experiencing a CMSA Convention as a performer and patron. The first time I ever heard of CMSA was when I lived in London, studying at Trinity College of Music. It's funny how sometimes you have to be 6,000 miles away to find out about something in your own backyard.

I was selected to represent Great Britain in the European Guitar Mandolin Youth Orchestra. Alison suggested I contact the CMSA to ask for assistance to pay for my flights to Greece. The late Norman Levine was a lovely guy and he was more than happy to help me out. My participation was made possible by the kind support of CMSA/Plucked String Foundation and the BMG Federation of England. That was a life changing experience for me. I finished EGMYO with a completely different perception of what is the classical mandolin than when I started the program. That experience helped focus my next four years at Trinity College of Music. I will always be grateful for the kindness and dedication Norman Levine and CMSA showed me.

Christopher Acquavella and Nate Jarrell

Duo LaRé - Christopher Acquavella and Nate Jarrell. Photo credit: Gary Payne.

Mandolin Cafe: You will also be performing at CMSA as part of Duo LaRé with long-time guitar playing friend Nate Jarrell. Your musical travels with him make for an interesting story.

Nate Jarrell, guitar, and Christopher Acquavella, mandolin. Click to enlarge.  Photo credit: Gary Payne. Nate Jarrell, guitar, and Christopher Acquavella, mandolin. Click to enlarge. Photo credit: Gary Payne.

Christopher Acquavella: Nate Jarrell (guitar) and I first met while playing in a hardcore punk band called Born Blind around 1997. Shortly thereafter we signed a record deal, released two albums and were able to tour the country. Born Blind played together for five years and after the group split, we took off in different musical directions. Around 2001, I moved to London to attend Trinity College of Music and get my degree in classical performance. While I was in London, Nate went to San Diego State and got his degree in jazz guitar. When I returned to San Diego, both of us were performing in our respective genres, Nate (jazz) and me (classical). I seemed to go through numerous guitarists trying to find the perfect match for a mandolin-guitar duo. After one musician canceled last minute before a library concert series, I called Nate and begged him to fill in. Nate's reaction was "sure, but what in the world are we going to play?" Oddly enough, we were able to create an interesting program after looking at each other's repertoire. It actually worked out really well.

After all those years of playing together, Nate and I found we were an ideal complement to each other. There is also something to be said about getting to perform with your best friend and long-time musical partner. We have had many adventures throughout the years and those tend to add to the overall ensemble. There are many times I remind him that he almost drove the tour van off a bridge at 2:00 a.m., in which case Nate kindly reminds me that I got the van stuck in mud at a festival and almost took out a community of tents (Winfield, beware). We try to fly to our concerts now, LOL.

On our own, we both have success performing in our separate genres but with the duo, our different styles meld together wonderfully. We blend our two worlds to create a new, interesting style of music. Mixing my classical training with Nate's jazz influences results in harmonies an audience doesn't hear that often put together. Duo LaRé allows us to be creative with our compositions and repertoire choices. I'm really having fun working with Nate and I think that comes across in our live performances.

Mandolin Cafe: Tell us about the Duo's new project.

In Other Words, the new upcoming recording from Chris Acquavella and Nate Jarrell. Click to purchase. In Other Words, the new upcoming recording from Chris Acquavella and Nate Jarrell. Click to purchase.

Christopher Acquavella: I'm super excited about our new release entitled In Other Words. Similar to Duo LaRé's concerts, there is a good variation on musical styles and composers represented. The album features original compositions as well as selections from Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, Amilson Godoy, Hermeto Pasqual, Paul Mitchell-Davidson, Denise Mangiardi and Zura Dzagnidze. In Other Words is a live incarnation of our compositions where the traditions of contemporary classical, modern jazz and Eastern European folk music meet the solid rhythmical traditions of contemporary music styles. The overall vibe of the album is world music.

The piece In Other Words is a new composition I commissioned Denise Mangiardi to write for Duo LaRé. I wanted a contemporary piece that had elements of jazz improvisation and classical structure. Around this time Denise was going through a hard time because her sister is battling cancer. From that experience Denise wrote In Other Words, which is dedicated to her sister. A close mentor and friend of mine has also been battling cancer for quite some time, so this tune really hit home for me. Using that cut for the CD title also has a different meaning for Nate and I. Duo LaRé isn't the stereotypical mandolin & guitar duo. We are always crossing genres and finding new ways to present our music and ideas. On this CD we included a cello, bass and world percussion on a lot of the tracks. It was great to hear our duo repertoire come to life in a full band setting. In Other Words by Duo LaRé is scheduled to be released October 1, 2010. Look for it on amazon and iTunes. It will also be available at the CMSA Convention in Seattle. GET YOUR TICKETS NOW!!!

Duo LaRé

Duo LaRé performing "Nardis," composed by Miles Davis/Bill Evans.

Mandolin Cafe: Your main instrument is from Canadian luthier Brian N. Dean. What drew you to his instruments?

Christopher Acquavella: Last year I decided I wanted to change my mandolin "voice." For many, many years I have been associated with the Embergher "Roman" tone, which suited me very well at the time. My Nuova Liuteria Romana, named "Mandy," has always been a wonderful instrument. However, after moving back to San Diego I found that not many people liked the tone of my instrument. I heard a lot of comments about liking my playing but not the instrument so much. I think a couple of different things contributed to this perception. San Diego is very classical guitar oriented so the warmer low tone is popular here. San Diego is also a big bluegrass haven where the F-style is king, although Collings A mandolins seem to be well represented. Also, the music I started performing, ie., Duo LaRé, didn't work well with a traditional Italian sound. And, to be honest, I had a case of MAS and decided I needed to justify a new purchase.

I knew that I wanted to return to the German style instrument (warmer sound, larger bowl), which I played around with during my third year at Trinity College of Music. I was talking to several German makers: Alfred Woll being my first choice. I was just about to lay down a deposit when I woke up one morning with a desire to support "home grown" talent. I wanted to "keep business in the family," so to speak. I have always admired Brian Dean's work so I contacted him to see if he would be interested in taking on the project. What originally attracted me to Brian is his willingness to look outside the box but still respect tradition. His work is very original, unique and earthy. Soulfully organic and powerful in tone and volume. This was, by far, the best building experience I have ever encountered. Brian is a real down to earth, humble craftsman and artist.

Once again MAS has struck. I am currently on the boards for a Grand Concert instrument, which Brian will hopefully start building in three months or so. I decided to get a Grand Concert instrument after talking with Joe Brent in New York City. I like the modern design and the tone is very warm and powerful but still has an openness of a bowlback instrument. The "German Model," named "Ana," will always be my main instrument. The Grand Concert will have to be my "rocker" mandolin, LOL. I still use my Nuova Liuteria Romana, "Mandy," for my concerts with the San Diego Symphony and other orchestral work.

Brian Dean German model mandolin

Chris Acquavella's German model Brian N. Dean Mandolin.

Mandolin Cafe: You have a degree from the Trinity College of Music in London and studied with Alison Stephens. That must have opened up some interesting options for ensemble performances.

Christopher Acquavella: Studying at Trinity College of Music in London with Alison Stephens is the best thing that has ever happened to me. The conservatory is absolutely wonderful and such an inspirational place to study. It's one of a handful of conservatories in Europe that has a fully accredited Bachelors, Masters and post-graduate mandolin program. The faculty is so passionate about music and bringing the best educational experience to all students. A mandolinist there is treated on the same level as any other instrument. I had all the same opportunities as violin, cello, wind and brass students, etc. I enjoyed working with string quartets, contemporary composers, guitarists, harpists and even full orchestra. I really tried to get the mandolin involved in every project I could get my hands on. One year I performed with a string trio. The next year I worked with a cellist and double bassist. The opportunities were there for the taking for any musician who sought them out. My main focus and passion while at TCM was mandolin & guitar duo repertoire. I had a feeling this is where I would end up professionally after graduation. I formed several duos with some good guitarists whom have gone on to a successful start to their careers. My favorite duo partner was guitarist, Zura Dzagnidze. We performed and composed some really cool repertoire together.

Chris with his Trinity College of Music Trust Silver Medal for String Studies in 2006. Photo credit: Penny Genovese. Chris with his Trinity College of Music Trust Silver Medal for String Studies in 2006. Photo credit: Penny Genovese.

When I first arrived at college I was so naive about the classical mandolin. I soon realized that my knowledge of classical music was also limited to that of the guitar history. I felt completely overwhelmed and out of my depth those first couple of months in London. "What did I get myself into," was on my mind frequently. However, Alison is such a genius with helping students adjust to the study process, as was the rest of the TCM faculty. I remember the piece that I played for Alison at our first lesson. It was a Bouree for solo flute by Bach. After I finished playing, Alison's comment was "Well that was impressive but it sounded completely rubbish." I didn't understand and took it personally. I played it fast and super clean. I shredded the fingerboard, giving Thile a run for his money, and thought it was pretty flawless! Alison went on to say that even though it is obvious I knew my fingerboard and could play fast, I completely ignored all dynamics and phrasing, leaving the piece soulless.

That first criticism of my playing would fuel my passion for the next four years. Like many student/teacher relationships, Ali and I had many interesting experiences; often resulting in one of us walking out of the room. Some of these experiences were due to my stubbornness but also Alison's drive to get the best out of each musician. In the end our relationship was stronger for it and I was always willing to give her everything I had to reach my potential. I'm truly grateful for all of our learning experiences together and for helping me find myself as an artist. Another TCM student recently summed it up best; Ali is "Insightful, helpful, challenging and never anything less than supportive." Alison's approach to learning the mandolin is refreshing and open minded. Even though she is from the Italian school, she taught me to examine all styles/schools of playing. There is something to learn from everyone. Something I still apply to my playing and try to pass on to my students. I recommend studying with Alison Stephens at Trinity College of Music for any mandolinist serious about playing professionally. Both are dedicated to helping the student reach their full potential.

Mandolin Cafe: We happen to know you have an interest in hollow-bodied jazz style mandolins at the moment. Any plans to venture into some new styles with this?

Christopher Acquavella: Absolutely! Music is constantly changing and I want to try it all. Working with Nate in Duo LaRé has me listening to a lot of modern jazz: Jonathan Kreisberg, Pat Metheny and Christian Scott. Because of the nature of Duo LaRé, combining jazz and classical music, we are able to step foot into both worlds. One week we might be performing at a chamber society music series and the next week we'll be at a cool jazz club. It's quite fun and keeps life interesting. I definitely have an interest in bringing a new element to what Nate and I do by introducing a jazz hollow body electric mandolin into the mix. Unfortunately, after asking around I am finding they are way too expensive for my budget at the moment so it will have to remain on the wish list for right now.

Mandolin Cafe: Mandolin and piano make a marvelous combination. You list several pieces with piano in your repertoire. Any future plans that included performing and/or recording in this combination?

Christopher Acquavella: I am thinking about recording with piano but it's in the distant future. There are three other projects in line first. However, this season I might be performing again with San Diego chamber group, Camarada. We have talked about including me in their baroque to early classical program. I will hopefully get the chance to perform with a pianist and cellist for that concert. Maybe a bit of Scarlatti and most likely a bit of Beethoven. Might suggest a Leoni piece as well. I like working with pianists. It's just hard to make a solid duo out of it because you always have to find a venue with a nice piano. Either that or they have to play a keyboard. It's hard asking a professional pianist "hey, I know we've been rehearsing on a Bechstein, but do mind if we do this concert with an electric Casio keyboard?" LOL. I know that I wouldn't want to perform with a Kentucky KM150 after being blessed with a Brian N. Dean. The audience deserves better than that as well. However, I am always looking for opportunities to work with pianists. There is some great repertoire out there from the Calace Concerti to the Carmen Sonata. One day...

Letters from London, EP, from 2009. Click to purchase. Letters from London, EP, from 2009. Click to purchase.

Mandolin Cafe: You maintain a busy teaching schedule. Between that and performing, where is composing at on your schedule these days?

Christopher Acquavella: I think most musicians will agree when I say we can never be too busy. I am always looking for more work, especially as a mandolinist. We really need to be proactive in getting concerts and letting orchestras and chamber groups know we exist. That being said, I love to compose and wish I did it more. Composing at the moment seems to be functional. I am focused on writing interesting material for Duo LaRé and some solo mandolin stuff. Nate and I will have a conversation about a type of piece we would like to play. I will then spend some time to create a melody or guitar part and then see how the piece develops. I am interested in eventually composing for mandolin orchestras. Just need to find an outlet for my work. I wish I had more time to spend on composing but it doesn't bring in any income at the moment. Until then I need to focus on concerts and teaching. I am hoping to have the opportunity to teach at a few camps this summer as well as perform at some of the big mandolin/folk music festivals. I look forward to sharing my music and knowledge with as many people as I can.

In regards to teaching, I really enjoy sharing & working with my students. I have a decent size teaching studio consisting of about 30 students. I am very proud of all my students who work hard for me. We recently finished recording our 2010 Student CD. It has been wonderful hearing everyone's progress as well as the feedback from them on each others playing. They are all learning something from hearing the other student's tracks, which was one of my main goals with the yearly project. All of my students have progressed so much. I am looking forward to now building upon that experience.

Mandolin Cafe: You donated a mandolin to the California Bluegrass Association's Kids on Bluegrass fund a few years ago when we called for contributions. We thought that was an incredibly wonderful gesture on your part.

Christopher Acquavella: Thanks. I was happy to do it. It's not often I can afford to help out an organization like that but I was glad that the opportunity presented itself. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend. The instrument I donated was my very first mandolin which served me well from the Celtic band days all the way through my college auditions. I also used that mandolin when I performed with a contemporary folk group in London called Izbuha. I got a lot out of that instrument. I'm so happy that it will have a chance to further a young student's interest in the mandolin.

Gear Facts

Main Instruments: "German Model" by Brian N. Dean.

String preferences: Thomastik-Infeld - mediums, G-A, D'Addario LE.10 E string.

Instrument cases: RockCase with blue case cover (German).

Picks: Wolle plectrums - mostly Blue (medium) and White (hard).

Microphone preferences, studio and live: Preferred is no amplification but when needed, AKG C414 microphone (most of the time), Schertler DYN-M, AER Amplification.

Additional information

Chris Acquavella web site
Duo LaRé on MySpace
Nate Jarell Music
Brian N. Dean Mandolins
CMSA 2010, hosted by the Seattle Mandolin Orchestra

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Reader Comments

September 13, 2010 02:03 PM
GREAT! Fascinating.....I just learnt more about Chris than I did in 4 years teaching him at Trinity! He deserves our support...he is such a driving force....I know this sounds like the mutual admiration society....but we had our moments as Chris has already divulged!
I think my exact comments on Chris' first rendition of Bach to me were "that was lovely, but it wasn't Bach"..... but I prefer Chris' memory! Good luck at the Convention Chris. Wish I could come!
September 13, 2010 05:50 PM
The British BMG Federation wishes Chris all the very best at the Convention, that was a great interview with loads of interesting info... and I still love that German mandolin!
I'm sure that Chris will forgive me if I make one small comment re: "My participation was made possible by the kind support of CMSA/Plucked String Foundation and the BMG Federation of England"

Its actually the British BMG Federation, there is no BMG Federation of England... we can't be upsetting half our Committee (from Scotland).. ho ho hee hee.

Barbara and I were in San Diego last year and had hoped to meet up with Chris... but the holiday passed so quickly and..ah well. But Chris, if you are ever in Scotland.... let us know, we'll have work for you!
Very best wishes to Chris, his progress in the "mandolin world" has been incredible.
Barbara and Ian
September 14, 2010 04:42 PM
Thanks to Mandolin Cafe for the great interview of Chris. I am one of the lucky students that get to study with Chris in San Diego. It really is a rare opportunity, especially here in the United States, to be able to study with such and accomplished classical mandolinist.
September 14, 2010 07:59 PM
I really enjoyed this interview and it brought to my attention a mandolinist I wasn't aware of. I loved the clips and I've been exploring Chris's music since. Big ups for playing a Brian Dean mandolin! Someday I hope to as well.

Mandolin Cafe
September 12, 2018 07:39 AM
Noting the anniversary of this feature interview published this date 2010.
Mandolin Cafe
September 12, 2019 10:39 AM
Noting the anniversary of this interview from 2010.