ASO review: Mandolinist Avi Avital brings tiny instrument center stage

Avi Avital
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Rakish Israeli musician Avi Avital is widely heralded for placing the diminutive mandolin — an American stalwart of bluegrass music — firmly in the classical realm. He’s accomplished this most notably with his 2010 recording of Avner Dorman’s Mandolin Concerto, for which the mandolinist received a Grammy nod, and his concert and recorded performances of Vivaldi’s sole mandolin-centric work.


Dorman’s engaging new work, which takes cues from Stravinsky, Middle Eastern music and arena rock, and Vivaldi’s courtly, refined Mandolin Concerto in C Major couldn’t be farther apart from each other stylistically. The two, however, allowed for a complete picture of Avital’s range as a performer during a Thursday concert with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.


Avital is not alone in bringing the instrument to a classical audience. In 2013, virtuoso Chris Thile released a recording of Bach sonatas and partitas, which he has been performing in a solo presentation for years in addition to touring with his quasi-bluegrass band and, as of this fall, hosting the now music-centric “Prairie Home Companion.” But Avital has carved a career out of commissioning new classical works for the instrument and celebrating its spot in the classical repertoire.


The mandolinist’s most engaging performance Thursday, aside from his awe-inspiring take on a Bulgarian folk tune played as an encore, was the Dorman. Avital commissioned the piece, and it’s clear he is intimately acquainted with its 20th-century quirks, but his familiarity didn’t weigh down his performance. Sitting on a piano bench and reading from sheet music, Avital strummed and plucked with abandon, playing each note with enthusiasm and vigor.