Avi Avital - The Carnegie Hall Debut Interview

By Joe Brent - special for the Mandolin Cafe
January 20, 2014 - 5:30 pm

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Deutsche Grammophon recording artist Avi Avital. Photo credit: Uwe Arens Deutsche Grammophon recording artist Avi Avital. Photo credit: Uwe Arens

When we received word Avi Avital was headed to Carnegie Hall for his January 17 debut we sent mandolinist extraordinaire Joe Brent to interview his good friend. Our intent was to publish this prior to his appearance but Avi's busy touring and performing schedule prevented us and we had no intention of adding to his demands with an important recital looming.

No worry, the two caught up the day after the performance and put together this interview about the prior evening and his spectacular new project, Between Worlds. They even had time to record a video of them performing a short piece by Bartok you'll find below.


 — Scott Tichenor
     Mandolin Cafe

The Interview

Joe Brent: Ciao Avi! Nice to see you again!

Avi Avital: Same here Joe!

Joe Brent: Last time we did one of these was a few years ago. Why don't you start by telling us how your life has changed since then.

Avi Avital: Oh wow. It seems like ages ago and yesterday at the same time.

Joe Brent: December 2010, three years ago!

Avi Avital: So first of all I'm a daddy now! My son Hillel was born six months ago which is a great source of joy in my life. A lot has been happening musically as well. My debut album on the Deutsche Grammophon came out about a year ago, which marks a huge personal milestone. It is an all Bach album and was very warmly received. I feel it was also a big door that has been opened for mandolin music in general. Besides that I can count some new gorgeous pieces that were added to the mandolin repertoire in this time, oh and probably a lot of flight miles as well.

Joe Brent: So phew, quite a bit! I find that what the world puts into me, I put back into it through music. Your every experience of the world changes what you add to it. How has your own playing changed in the past few years? Anything you've noticed?

Avi Avital: Absolutely, yes! I really feel my playing has changed. Well, maybe developed is a better word. I feel like I'm collecting in my everyday life insights, inspirations, experience, knowledge that I encounter. It could be the most simple thing like the sound of the vibrato in a voice of someone on the break of sobbing, or the complex philosophic thoughts. All these are added to my lexicon and then they appear in the music. It's like an actor who's collecting emotional expressions from daily life, or a poet who's writing metaphors in his little handbook. I can definitely say for example that parenthood opened a range of emotions I didn't even know existed. My son already gave me some very practical insights about music already!

Joe Brent: Kids are amazing like that. Their reactions to music are incredible to watch, even when they're still too young to know what it is they're reacting to. Not much different from adult reactions, really!

Avi Avital: True. What was remarkable for me to experiment on him is timing. You know that simple game everyone plays with kids. You hide your face with your hand and then reveal them, it goes with a "coucou" sound usually. The baby always laughs — the laughter is simply a physical reaction to the relief caused by seeing daddy's face again after they have disappeared behind the big hands. A simple tension-relief game on which every music in the world is based. Now, usually on the third or fourth time you repeat this, the baby knows already that after you hide your face you're going to show them again. The tension is less dramatic and so is the relief. That's why if you want the baby to laugh you have to stay a little longer, but not too long, behind your hands, and probably say the "coucou" in a higher voice. Break the expectation, extending the tensions, make the relief more glorious when it comes after a several repeats. That's what interpretation of music is all about.

Joe Brent: I never would have equated the famous delayed deceptive cadence of the final movement of Mahler's 9th with the coucou game, but now I'll never hear it the same way again! What does Hillel think of the new album?

Avi Avital: Oh he heard all the takes, before editing, after editing, before mixing, after mixing. I recorded the album a month before he was born and the editing and mixing process took place in his first months of life. So he heard a lot of it. It's very interesting. They were practically born together and it of course influenced me greatly. I remember recording the album with the excitement of "it can happen any moment now." This is such a special feeling and charged the studio with special energy. The excitement of "there is something in the belly there, and I won't be able to know it until it comes out." It is a little bit the same feeling like when you record a new album, isn't it?

Joe Brent: I can't say for certain, not having kids myself, but I know the pregnant expectation of putting something out into the world, something beautiful that you created, and that you hope continues to add joy to the world long after you've shepherded its arrival. That's such an amazing story, too — you're gonna make me cry, dude. Cut it out (laughter). So last night... tell me about the concert at Carnegie Hall!

Carnegie Hall debut preparation

Avi Avital: It was very exciting, one of the milestones. A dream come true. I literally remember the first time I visited New York so many years ago passing by Carnegie Hall and just wondering, you know, who knows?

Joe Brent: Had you ever seen a concert at Carnegie?

Avi Avital: Oh, most definitely yes. It was just gorgeous. And I think the Weill Recital Hall is such a perfect size for the mandolin. I didn't want the concert to end because I was having so much fun playing in this wonderful acoustic setting.

Joe Brent: You start to think about the ghosts in that place.

Avi Avital: Exactly! I think that's one of the things that make Carnegie Hall so special. The fact that the most amazing musicians in the world perform there every night, night after night, for over a hundred years, that really has the power to change the energy of a place. You can feel it the moment you enter.

Joe Brent: Is there another venue that you've played in that made you feel like that?

Avi Avital: Definitely. I had the same feeling at Wigmore Hall in London, for the same reason, and the Berlin Philharmonic, definitely. You feel like you're in a temple, it's really almost religious.

Joe Brent: Yeah, there's so many things that can affect your performance. I mean, obviously you come in with your own experience of music and experience of the world, but then in the moment of performance you're affected by the audience, by the venue.

Avi Avital: Of course.

Joe Brent: So what did you play on the program?

Avi Avital: I prepared a very kind of panoramic recital because of the symbolic meaning of Carnegie Hall, and in a debut recital I thought it should be a program that was panoramic for the mandolin, Also for myself as an artist, that echoes with my artistic identity. So I started with my own piece, the only piece I ever wrote, which I called Kedma.

Deutsche Grammophon recording artist Avi Avital

Photo credit: Uwe Arens.

Deutsche Grammophon recording artist Avi Avital. Photo credit: Uwe Arens

Joe Brent: Is that the one with the scordatura string?

Avi Avital: Exactly.

Joe Brent: I love that one.

Avi Avital: And then I played Nigun, by Ernest Bloch, which is a piece I've been playing since forever, and it means a lot to me. Then I ended the first half with the entire 2nd Partita for violin solo by Bach, including the monumental Chaconne.

Joe Brent: The big one.

Avi Avital: Yes! That was just a treat to play in that acoustic. Then after the intermission I played an original piece written for the mandolin by Yasuo Kuwahara, Improvised Poem, a very kind of virtuosic piece, a symbol of the new techniques, and the modern writing for the mandolin. Then I played a piece that I just recorded on the album, which is the Seven Spanish Songs by Manuel De Falla.

Joe Brent: I know it well.

Avi Avital: I played it in an arrangement for mandolin and harp with harpist Sivan Magen. And, as a big part of my musical life I dedicate to the expansion of mandolin repertoire, it was important for me to include a New York premiere of a recently commissioned piece, and that was Cymbeline by David Bruce. He's a UK composer, and he wrote this wonderful piece for mandolin and string quartet.

Joe Brent: Kuwahara was a mandolinist of course, and much of his music is, as they say, 'mandolinistic,' very idiomatic for the instrument. David Bruce is not a mandolinist; we both have played his music, and we're both huge fans — he's absolutely brilliant. But can you talk about the difference between playing something that was written for mandolin by someone with an understanding of the instrument, as opposed to say, someone who's approaching it tabula rasa?

Avi Avital: Whenever I get a new score from a composer, I discover something new about the mandolin — not all the time, but when it happens it's really cool. So at first sight, I can open David Bruce's piece, I opened the first page and I see a low G and a high D in tremolo, and I said, "OK, I have to phone this guy, because obviously he doesn't know that there are two strings in the middle, and you cannot tremolo them both!" And I was worried, and I said, OK, what if I do the tremolo with my thumb and my 4th finger, and skip the two notes, without using the pick, because it's anyway in piano, and there you go, I discovered a new technique that I never used!

Technique Demonstration

Avi Avital demonstrates a technique developed out of necessity for a piece of music written by a non-mandolin playing composer.

Joe Brent: And a mandolinist would never have written that, because the first thought would be, "Well, you can't do it."

Avi Avital: Exactly. It happened to me with many pieces, that at first sight I said, "This is impossible!" And then after 20 minutes you figure out a way to play it, and you've expanded your knowledge and technique. And that's exactly why it's so important to commission new pieces for the mandolin because the development of the instrument, even physically, how an instrument develops, are developing through history through the compositions.

Joe Brent: So say, for example, the violin, which has this massive established repertoire — the vocabulary of the violin was created in equal parts by someone like Paganini, but also by Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, who added their own vocabulary to the pieces they wrote that became a part of the standard vocabulary of the instrument.

Avi Avital: I feel it's all a kind of work in progress, now with composers that know much more about the mandolin, the instrument has developed in the meantime, so it's opening new horizons.

Joe Brent: I don't know if you saw the article by Norman Lebrecht where he wrote that 2014 is going to be the Year of Classical Mandolin, mentioning specifically you and Chris Thile. How do you feel about that, you think he might have a point?

Avi Avital: Yeah, that would work for me (laughter), The Year of the Mandolin, why not! It's nice, because I've been doing what I'm doing for so many years, and it's nice to feel in the past, say, three years, to feel a huge feedback from the world, and a lot of interest, a lot of curiosity. It's just so satisfying to see something that you believe in, something that you've worked on, finally resonate back. It's started with the Grammy nomination, and the Deutsche Grammophon contract, and Carnegie Hall suddenly... Those are all first times for the classical mandolin in general, and it's nice to see that people worldwide are finally open to discovering the art of the mandolin.

Joe Brent: So let's get on to the album! Can you talk a bit about how you approached the recording?

Avi Avital: The idea of the album... I'm on the Mandolin Cafe, so I can talk about it!

Joe Brent: You can nerd out.

Avi Avital: (laughter) Finally!

Avi Avital and Joe Brent play Bartok

Fresh on the heels of his Carneige Hall debut Joe Brent sat down with Avi Avital for this interview. In the process they recorded Bartok, from the 44 duos for violin, #32 Dancing Song (Maramarosi Tanc).

Joe Brent: It's nice to be amongst proper mandolin nerds and just talk about it without feeling like you're boring people to death.

Avi Avital: We were talking about the diversity of the mandolin, unlike any other instrument in the world, there are different shapes of the instrument, and different genres that have mandolin as the main character, like choro and bluegrass, and I was thinking a lot about it in past years. I studied it as a classical instrument, and of course I realized that in most people's conscious, it's more closely related to folk music. In the United States obviously it's more related to bluegrass, but like we said, in Brazil it's more closely connected to choro, and it may sound like other instruments like the Russian balalaika and the Greek bouzouki and so on. So somehow, the identity of the instrument is kind of ambiguous for me, between classical music and folk, or traditional plucked string instruments. And I wanted to examine this border, to play with this duality. So I chose composers, a stream of compositions, starting from the first half of the 20th century, that had in their compositions this duality. They were composers who wrote music for concert halls, what we call "classical" music, but influenced by folk music. The best example is Bartok who took folk melodies and transcribed them for piano solo, or Manuel De Falla who took Spanish folk songs, re-harmonized them, and wrote a score for mezzo soprano and piano. It was fascinating for me to think about it — both Bartok and De Falla wrote their pieces exactly 100 years ago, in 1914.

Joe Brent: Was that by coincidence or by design that you chose those pieces?

Avi Avital: By coincidence! I chose the pieces, and then in my research I found out all these amazing coincidences. I was trying to imagine going to a piano recital 100 years ago, and to suddenly hear this exotic modes and rhythms of 6 Romanian Folk Dances," how modern and advanced was it? Incredibly advanced. Nowadays, when you say to someone to picture a Romanian folk dance, everyone has a vague idea of how that may sound, because we're privileged to know a lot about other cultures, and if we're not, we have YouTube (laughter)! In a second, we can know what a Romanian folk tune sounds like. But that wasn't the case a hundred years ago. So, I was really looking at all these composers like Bartok and Dvorak in a completely different light. They were pioneers.

Joe Brent: It's an amazing thing to think that these guys were contemporaries of (Edgard) Varèse, and their music sounds exotic. But also, and I've said this before, but my belief is that we've spent the first few hundred years of Western classical music breaking down the codified rules of harmony. Now that we've broken it down close to as far as they will go, the next generation of music will be about the breakdown of the barrier between 'folk art' and 'fine art.' Folk music has a place on stage at Carnegie Hall, and classical musicians are reaching out to audiences in non-traditional venues, and that's great for everyone.

Avi Avital: It's something that's very organic for an artist, to be influenced by, and to reflect and resonate the huge variety of music that is out there.

Joe Brent: So you specifically chose this current.

Avi Avital: The key was composers who I would call folklorists, all of whom wrote music for classical situations driven by either their own folklore or other folklores. But in order to preserve the aspect of modernism, I wanted not just to play the music that they wrote but to re-elaborate it, and make it modern again. To make it for 2014, where we live in a world like you say, where there, luckily, is no clear border between genres of music. So when I took each one of the pieces, I thought, "How can I create a world of sound, a mikrokosmos, for each piece that will resemble more the sound of its origins, the way these composers like Bartók and De Falla heard it from the village people, the peasants, from the shepherds.

Between Worlds

Avi Avital's Between Worlds, on Deutsche Grammophon.

Between Worlds

Joe Brent: Before it was passed through their own prism.

Avi Avital: Exactly. So I'm taking this music one step back to its origins, but still keeping it very much classical chamber music, and adding percussion to spice it up and add a folk element. It goes without saying that everything played on the mandolin gives it this kind of duality.

Joe Brent: So to keep it modern, you took it a step back!

Avi Avital: In a way. It's a revisiting. I'm sure it wouldn't sound like the origins, because still the harmonies are Bartók's. But still, this is 100 year-old music, but I didn't want it to sound 100 years old. I wanted the music to sound very modern.

Joe Brent: Tell me a bit about some of your collaborators.

Avi Avital: The whole album, I recorded with a group of maybe 8 or 9 people, and we chose a different instrument for each one of the tracks, but there are three very special guests on this album. First is the jazz accordionist Richard Galliano, who's been my idol since I was a kid. I remember having LPs at my parents, and he's just a magician of the accordion, so it was incredible to play with him. And Giora Feidman, the king of klezmer, a master of clarinet. He's 77 by now, and by far the greatest master musician that I personally know and has influenced me directly throughout my life. We're good friends as well; he's kind of my mentor. And it's interesting that those two masters are also folk musicians, Richard Galliano records a lot of classical music and Piazzolla, but he's an improviser. Giora Feidman as well. He played for 20 years with the Israel Philharmonic, but then he decided to focus on klezmer, and bring folk music, klezmer, into the great halls. He also performed the first concert of klezmer music in Carnegie Hall, it was a historical event. So I wanted to bring that element into this album, and it was interesting because the pieces I recorded with them took on their own life. We had an arrangement on the music stand, but we ended up adding improvisation sections. We had the spontaneous interaction that happened in the microphones at the studio. This is something that I take to the classical world from the jazz, from the world of folk music that nourished and is a strong element in this album.

Joe Brent: Putting this kind of improvisation in a classical album always feels like you're gettin' away with something!

Avi Avital: (laughter) I mean, when we had to decide about the sequence, the order of the tracks on the CD, I wanted it to open with something that, when people would push the play button, you'd look at the cover and say, "Is this Deutsche Grammophon?" Something that would completely set the tone and the atmosphere of the album, and I chose a piece by Tsintsadze, a Georgian composer. Like the other composers, he took Georgian tunes and wrote them for a string quartet, and I took them and re-arranged them for mandolin and string quintet and percussion.

Between Worlds album trailer

Produced in advance by Deutsche Grammophon.

Joe Brent: So you did all the arrangements?

Avi Avital: On the Tsintsadze, yes. But we had a genius percussionist, Itamar Doari. He doesn't read any scores, so we were just there, playing, trying different grooves. Tsintsadze opens actually with a mandola, with a little improvisation like an introduction that I added to the piece. Then you hear all this percussion together with the string quartet, so it's a mixture of chamber music with a huge deal of rhythm and percussive elements that lights you up in a different way. So the Tsintsadze is very short, two minutes, but it says, "This is what the record is about."

Joe Brent: The Villa-Lobos is something which is very familiar to a lot of listeners. So is the Piazzolla.

Avi Avital: The Villa-Lobos, certainly. He wrote a series of pieces called Bachianas Brasileiras. Even just by the title, you see this mixture of worlds. Because he wanted to write Brazilian music, but very much influenced and inspired by Bach's contrapuntal thinking. So, Bachianas is like "Bach-in-Brazil" kind of thinking in Villa-Lobos's mind. He also entitled all the pieces — I'm playing Bachianas Brasileiras #5, which is the most known one. In all of these, he gave two titles, one in Baroque language, and one in Brazilian. So this one is Aria, and the Brazilian subtitle is Cantilena, which is a song form. Villa-Lobos and Monti are the two tracks I recorded in duo with Richard Galliano on accordion, which is another instrument which enjoys this ambiguity of being both classical and folk. What's interesting about Monti, in the Csárdás, I don't know if a lot of people know this — I'm sure you know this — it's the only piece on this album that was originally written for the mandolin. Monti wrote in the original score, in the urtext: "for mandolin or violin." It's done more often on violin, for commercial reasons, but it's nice to think about how Monti had the mandolin, for my belief, in mind when he wrote it. Monti was a mandolin player, and he even wrote a little method book for the mandolin.

Joe Brent: Right there, from the first entrance of the piece, it's so obviously for mandolin.

Avi Avital: I had a process with the Monti Csárdás, because I played it as a kid, and then I sort of had enough of it because everyone was playing it and I couldn't hear it anymore. But then I revisited the score, and the thing that influenced me is to think most of the interpretations these days take to an extreme the Gypsy, Hungarian aspects of it, and extend all the little schtickele, and so on. But then at a certain point I said wait a minute. Monti wasn't Hungarian, he was Italian, he was from Napoli, and he played the mandolin. This is a very specific style of music. So I started to rethink of the piece as a Neapolitan who writes Hungarian music, not as a Hungarian Gypsy. By playing it on mandolin again it gave a very refreshing sense to me that I also tried to transmit in this recording.

Joe Brent: This piece is something that every mandolinist plays when they're learning, or at that stage when they're progressing from amateur level to a more advanced level. There are a lot of pieces like that, which I've abandoned for many, many years, Calace specifically. Is that something that you're finding now, that things you might not have played for a while, you're revisiting and finding something fresh to say about it as an adult, mature artist rather than as a student?

Avi Avital: Definitely, yes. Especially pieces that I remember fighting with my technique then, and to be able now to take the score and without the technical issues, to just read them, and play them like it's the first time I'm playing them. It gives you a whole fresh take on them.

Avi Avital's Arik Kerman Mandolin

Avi Avital Arik Kerman mandolin. No web presence for the builder. Photo credit: Uwe Arens.

Avi Avital's Arik Kerman Mandolin

Joe Brent: Are you revisiting Calace now these days?

Avi Avital: Not really. Of course when I studied in Italy I played Calace. Maybe in some years I'll revisit them.

Joe Brent: I'm the same. It's such a part of the mandolin vocabulary, it's like I don't need to play Calace's music because everything else from the classical repertoire, Calace is in it.

Avi Avital: That's true. Although Calace is very important for the mandolin, and very beautiful music, when you play Brahms, you know. It's a different level of composition.

Joe Brent: Along the same lines, every student also studies Bach, but musicians are compelled to continually revisit Bach in a way that they aren't for any other composer.

Avi Avital: Bach is like kabbalah for me. Every time I read Bach, even if it's a piece that I've played — I've played the Chaconne so many times, I don't know how many years I've played this piece — but every time I play it, I discover another inner line, another note that is connected to a suspension that came, like, eight bars before. Every time. It's endless. You can dig deeper and deeper and never exhaust it. It's so perfect. So absolute. I think only Bach has this quality, this level of depth that I have the reference of religious people reading the Torah every day, every day, although they know the text by heart, every time they read it, hopefully there is a new meaning for them, on that specific day, a new insight.

Joe Brent: For musicians, Bach is the blank canvas onto which you project yourself, and which every generation projects itself. When you listen to, say, Nathan Milstein playing Bach, it sounds very different from how we approach Bach today. But that doesn't mean that he was wrong, or we're right, that's how his generation heard music. It's most evident in their approach to Bach. Today you hear Rachel Podger playing the same music very different. But you learn a lot about the age in which you are examining by how they approached Bach.

Avi Avital: That's right, it's very dynamic. Take Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations, both recordings are timeless for me. It's another quality of Bach's music. There is no right or wrong, the music just plays, essentially. When I play Bach, in a metaphoric way, I try to cancel myself, and let the music flow. If you understand, and have all the inner voices, all the information you have in you, but at the time you forget it. You don't report the information that you have; it's in your body, it flows through the music like a Zen mode. Those were the moments for me in concerts that were like ecstasy.

Joe Brent: So you don't just learn something new about the music; you learn something new about yourself.

Avi Avital: That is true!

Joe Brent: Bach, he's not bad, that guy.

Avi Avital: He's OK!

Joe Brent: So getting back to the album, the Dvorak is also very much in keeping with the theme of the album.

Avi Avital: Yes, Dvorak is an interesting example. In the U.S., this track is available only as a bonus track in iTunes, by the way. Whenever I heard Dvorak's string quartets, I imagined this old guy, with a beard. You know, you put on the suit and you go to a concert and hear a string quartet. When you think of it, when Dvorak came to New York, he was offered a job by a patron to come and teach in the newly established conservatory of music. So he comes from Bohemia, which is the modern-day Czech Republic to New York with a mission. He was known by then as the father of nationalism, or folklorism in music, because he wrote the Slavonic Dances, and he used a lot of folk materials in his compositions. So to New York he is called, to help the poor Americans to find the classical music of America! To establish the new American classical music. Can you imagine how amazing that was? They said, to create our own culture, we cannot compose like European composers, we have a lot of folk material here, we need to use it. That was an incredible experiment. He comes here and he learns African-American spirituals and Native American music. One of his students was actually an African-American student, who became his best student, and the closest to him as well, and he taught him all the African-American spirituals. That's more than 130 years ago, can you imagine how advanced that was! So Dvorak tries to integrate all these elements, pentatonic scales — he loved trainspotting, so there's all the rhythms of trains, all these visual elements as well, all into — well, the most famous of all is the New World Symphony, and the American Quartet. But while I was doing my research I bumped into a beautiful analysis by Leonard Bernstein about the New World Symphony, where he shows that yeah, sometimes he uses pentatonic scales that maybe vaguely refer to some American spiritual, but essentially, this is completely Slovenian music and Dvorak is nothing more than just homesick! It's vaguely American, but then he goes back to these wonderful themes that are completely Slovakian. Imagining all these stories and Dvorak's experience in New York, that's what inspired me. That's also where the title comes from, Between Worlds.

Joe Brent: Dvorak and Bartok are the most closely associated with explicit use of folk music of all the composers, and speaking of explicit use of folk music, you have these actual, traditional tunes on here.

Avi Avital: Yeah, I have three folk tunes that we transcribed. The first one is Bucimis, a Hungarian folk dance in 15/16, it's this crazy rhythm. I thought to myself, when I took the Bartok 6 Romanian Folk Dances, why don't I add a seventh, to continue the set of Romanian folk dances with another which is completely folk. That was the idea, and I found this Bulgarian piece, it's from the same area and it's the same flavor. I recorded it as a duo with percussionist Itamar Doari. The other two folk pieces are a Welsh song that I recorded with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, she's another special guest on the album. That was a funny story, because I went to Cardiff and we recorded all kinds of stuff that we thought would fit on the album, and then when we finished recording I still had an hour until my train, and she had in her studio a little Welsh songbook that doesn't even have the chords in it, just two lines of the melody for each tune. And we randomly picked one and said, "Let's try it just for fun." And it was so spontaneous and so magical that literally, right before I had to run out for my train, we finished it. And after a couple of days we listened to it and said, "Wow, this is the one has to go on the album." It captures an amazing spontaneous action between artists that happened in the studio. And the last one is something that Giora Feidman brought, and for me, represents everything from my collaboration with Feidman, that he taught me about how to blur genres, about how everything is essentially, bottom line, about just the music.

Additional information

About Interviewer Joe Brent

Joseph Brent has worked with many of the great modern composers, premiering and performing works by Elliot Carter, Pierre Boulez, Magnus Lindberg, Olga Neuwirth, David Loeb, and Nathan Davis. He has performed as soloist with the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, as well as chamber ensembles The International Contemporary Ensemble, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Argento New Music Project, nunc, Speculum Musicae, and Art of Élan. Has given recitals and clinics in North and South America, Europe, and Asia, made his Carnegie Hall solo debut in 2001, and has lectured on contemporary music at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Simultaneously, he has maintained an active career in popular and improvising music, having performed and/or recorded with Regina Spektor, Woody Allen, Jewel, Stephane Grappelli, Alice and Ravi Coltrane, Tommy Tune, Sam Moore (from Sam and Dave), the Alan Ferber Nonet + Strings, and Kishi Bashi. He has been featured in dozens of Broadway and off-Broadway pit orchestras, including Tony Award winners and nominees Spring Awakening, Everyday Rapture, Big River, and Urban Cowboy.

Mr. Brent has published two books of mandolin pedagogy, recorded the complete mandolin works of David Loeb for Vienna Modern Masters, the complete lute music of John Dowland arranged for two mandolins (with Alon Sariel), and released two solo albums, a duo album with Ms. Kibbey, and another duo album with Sara Caswell. He is on the faculty of Mannes College the New School for Music, the first mandolin instructor to hold a faculty position with a major American conservatory.

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Reader Comments

January 21, 2014 04:56 PM
Nice detailed interview, Joe!

I enjoyed the concert, and it is always a treat to experience the acoustics of the Weill Recital Hall. It's a small, but extravagantly elegant space with glittering chandeliers and lush velvet curtains along the walls. Maybe the nicest space in the City for chamber music, it seats about 250 people.

It was an interesting contrast to Thile's show in the 500+ seat Zankel Hall downstairs. Avital was able to play without any microphones or amplification. And their styles and instruments are so very different. There were really very few moments, even in the Bach Dm Partita that reminded me of Thile's solo show.

What was most interesting to me in Avital's program was the contrast between the solo works and the duet with harp, and the piece with string quartet. Each brought out different qualities in his playing and his instrument. And the room 'loves' those instruments.
January 21, 2014 06:17 PM
Wow - what a monster of an interview!

Thank you... there's plenty to think about in there.
January 22, 2014 10:28 AM
I have been thinking about some elements of the discussion recorded here, in particular those concerning the folklorist approach to composition - those classical compositions that spring from folk music.

It does seem to me that the mandolin is well placed to draw from those two springs - folk and classical, but perhaps the danger in doing so is that that it burrows itself further into a niche without ever truly exposing it's capabilities as a valid contemporary instrument.

The relative sparsity of contemporary non-folk music composed for mandolin makes the recourse to folklorist compositions a smart move but there's only so far this can be mined before the mandolin as an instrument starts looking a bit threadbare through it's second hand, hand-me-down materials.

That's why i am glad to note the inclusion of some new compositions in Mr. Avital's repertoire too. Surely there's an argument to be made that today there may be more people composing for the mandolin than ever?

The problem maybe in finding the right setting for the mandolin - the right combination of instruments and composition.

In this i see the emergence of new forms of chamber music as providing an ideal vehicle. Chamber music gains from its intimacy and interplay and in doing so provides a welcome space for otherwise sidelined instruments such as mandolin, oud or indeed the accordion or bandoneon.

There is something delightfully punk, or , yes, folk, in these unorthodox chamber orchestras - a defiant assertiveness that must borrow from some of those minimalist ensembles that would play lofts and small venues all those years ago... or from the single-minded vision of Astor Piazzola who fashioned a new sound and setting for his instrument or even those stripped-back ensembles put together by Mr. Monroe back in the day.

The material may differ but the spirit is the same.

If anything, it's this independent and D.I.Y. attitude to making music that I associate with 'real folk' music - if i can oppose that nebulous notion to 'folk' as a genre - and, for me, it's a bud that should be nurtured and supported... it's good to know that there are people out there who care more for the mandolin, music and possibilities than for the self-interest of genres and boundaries.

I guess that some play for the wider perspective - more power to them.
Dagger Gordon
January 24, 2014 02:12 AM
" In this i see the emergence of new forms of chamber music as providing an ideal vehicle. Chamber music gains from its intimacy and interplay and in doing so provides a welcome space for otherwise sidelined instruments such as mandolin, oud or indeed the accordion or bandoneon. "

I think you might be right, but I'm not quite sure who or what you have in mind.
Could you give us some examples please?
January 24, 2014 06:54 AM
I am hesitant to draw up a rigid definition to this approach as many of the artists/projects that i would propose to share in it are drawn from different disciplines and different aprts of the world... but still i will vouch for them sharing in an aesthetic of intimacy, improvisation and reinterpretation... and also innovation or composition.

Off the top of my head - and to greater or lesser degrees of succsess -

Various ECM projects - those by Anja Lechner and Dino Saluzzi - DUO - for example

Anouar Brahem - particularly on the album 'Le Pas du Chat Noir'.

Then we have the Americana branch - centering around Edgar Meyer with projects such as Short Trip Home, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Appalachian Journey...

I just remembered - Modern Mandolin Quartet - Americana.

And, Melonious Quartet must also be mentioned.

I would also include various projects from the Martin Hayes, his duos with Dennis Cahill, and projects such as Triur, with Caoimhin O Raghallaigh.

Is there an emerging aesthetic or am i just lumping things together?

I don't know for sure... its up for debate.
February 10, 2017 03:56 PM
Just heard Bruce's "Cymbeline" (with Avi) - superb

Mandolin Cafe
January 20, 2018 08:13 AM
Noting today's anniversary of this fine interview of Avi by Joe Brent.
January 20, 2018 02:46 PM
Quote from M.Marmot: Wow - what a monster of an interview!

Thank you... there's plenty to think about in there. End Quote

And thanks for revisiting this interview.

Avi, as shown by this interview, really knows a lot of musical sources. He has an informed perspective from which to promote mandolin. And I am always impressed by his ability to not only do 'really cool and thoughtful projects' but to actually get noticed by the greater musical world. I'm usually left asking myself, "How does he pull this stuff off? Meaning, that many other musicians are doing 'cool and thoughtful' projects and end up without a tour, or contract, and just a you-tube video."

In the end, I don't care. I'll be at every Avital concert in my neck of the woods. Go Avi !
Mandolin Cafe
January 20, 2019 09:32 AM
Noting today's anniversary of this interview.