Much as Andres Segovia brought the classical guitar into the concert hall, the Israeli virtuoso Avi Avital is doing the same with the mandolin.
On Thursday, Avital makes his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut at the Hollywood Bowl with Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." With conductor Andre de Ridder, Avital will perform his own mandolin arrangements of Vivaldi's evergreen group of four violin concertos.
Before an interview at the Bowl this week, Avital turned and looked up at the shell above the famous stage and said: "Performing here has always been one of my dreams." For this edited conversation, Avital, 38, discussed Segovia's influence, the task of arranging Vivaldi's masterpiece for mandolin and whether he would be willing to go mandolin-à-mandolin with Chris Thile, the Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers musician and new “A Prairie Home Companion” host.
For your Naxos recording of Avner Dorman's Mandolin Concerto, you became the first mandolin soloist nominated for a classical Grammy. To date, you have performed about 90 new works for mandolin, premiering 15 concertos. Is this part of the legacy you took from Segovia?
It's one part of it, establishing a quality repertoire for the instrument. Segovia was an inspiration. He approached the foremost composers of his generation — Heitor Villa-Lobos, Joaquin Rodrigo, Manuel de Falla — to write music for the classical guitar. And look what it did for the world of the classical guitar. When I approach contemporary composers to write for the classical mandolin, this is what I have in mind. There are two new concertos coming this year — one by Mohammed Fairouz and another by Anna Clyne.
Has "The Four Seasons" ever been performed on mandolin before?
I assume so. It's been done on electric guitar. Arranging works written for other instruments is the main thing in my concert programs, though I'll also integrate a commissioned score. When I take a piece I want to arrange, I ask myself, “Why should people listen to it on the mandolin and not in the original?”
Why perform "The Four Seasons" on mandolin?
Everyone has heard it either in concert, on a ringtone, a CD, a commercial. It's instilled in our minds so deeply with a certain sound, so performing it on mandolin offers a fresh angle, a new way of listening. I know it's not entirely possible, but I hope to reconstruct a feeling of hearing this masterpiece for the first time.
Anyone who watched 1979's "Kramer vs. Kramer" has heard Vivaldi's Mandolin Concerto in C Major, but as the first mandolin soloist to become an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist, you chose an all-Bach program for your debut DG disc. Why not play it safe with Vivaldi?
It was somewhat risky. I'm playing baroque and classical on an instrument associated with folk music, and not only with bluegrass in North America. If I go to Russia, people associate it with the balalaika; in Greece, it's the bouzouki; in the Middle East, the oud. Every ancient musical culture has a plucked string instrument. But for people who thought the mandolin was limited, performing monumental pieces of a sacred composer on the instrument might change their minds. I saved Vivaldi's Concerto in C Major for my third album, because people might have said, “That's pretty much what we thought about the mandolin: it's very nice and sweet and cute.”
Was arranging "The Four Seasons" for mandolin like trying to translate a great poem?
It's a nice metaphor. I play what Vivaldi wrote, except for an occasional adaptation, like in the second movement, "Autumn," where the violin plays long notes in unison with the whole section. It's useless to play a long tremolo on the mandolin while the other musicians play the same thing, so I chose to play with the harpsichord's arpeggios.
Can you say a few words about sound production with the mandolin?
You can compare it to the violinist's bow. It depends on the angle of the pick, how you strike it, the articulation that comes from both left hand or right hand. There are endless means of expression with the mandolin, including many ways of making a legato besides the famous tremolo.
Would you accept a mandolin duel with Chris Thile?
Yes, absolutely, with one condition: Change "duel" to "duet." He's a brilliant musician. I love what he does, and it feels good to know that he also represents a renaissance for the mandolin.
Avi Avital with the L.A. Phil and conductor Andre de Ridder
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Information: (323) 850-2000 or HollywoodBowl.com
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