Avi Avital & Australian Brandenburg – Baroque & Beyond Magic

Avi Avital

What a tour de force the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra 25th Anniversary series in 2014 was. We ached all over from the beauty and great artistic strength of the music from the early Baroque, especially as played by this outstanding orchestra.

Led by artistic director maestro Paul Dyer, the ABO have performed with an outstanding array of memorable guest artists.

I held my breath, was blown away and at times, moved to tears of joy. However, as well as all those emotions, my heart was truly stopped on Saturday night 17th May, 2014 in the Melbourne Recital Centre when we heard the music of instrumental composing genius Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) played as never before.

The featured solo instrument wasn’t a violin, a flute or a cello, it was a Mandolin, whose glorious sound resonated in the splendid acoustic of the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Recital Hall completely seducing the audience. Personally, I went on a Mandolin driven rocket ride to heaven with Israel’s magical Mandolin player extraordinaire Avi Avital the man at the helm.

Avi Avital on Stage with Paul Dyer and Tommie Andersson photo by Steven Godbee

In today’s language the single most apt word to describe his exquisite exhilarating, energetic and entrancing performance was that it was totally AWESOME.

A student leaving the hall after the show described it as her ‘Jimi Hendrix’ moment in classical music, and everyone who heard her understood exactly how she felt.

Music lovers in Melbourne will long remember the name Avi Avital following this outstanding Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (ABO) debut. It’s certainly indelibly etched into my mind. He was dazzling.

As a true master of harmony Avi Avital completely inhabited the stage and took everyone there to his heart.

He cut a dashing figure wearing his rich silk velvet jacket with matt black silk lapels and gleaming patent glossy black shoes that caught and refracted the light, twinkling and radiating the talent of a true superstar.

His style was full of youthful eloquence, as he tossed his wavy locks and tapped his toes, tackling challenging works by composers Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach, before really breaking out and rocking 20th century works by Manuel de Falla and Béla Bartok with faultless fingering.

Together the ABO and Avi Avital gave a performance that will go down in the annals, of early Baroque and beyond music history in Australia. There were many spine-tingling moments of such sheer virtuosity that the only other way to describe his performance was to say it was pure art and poetry in motion.

The show started with the Orchestra, performing the Concerto for four violins in B minor, RV 580, Op 3 No 10- from L’estro armonico by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).

Avi Avital and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, on stage Elizabeth Murdoch Recital Hall, Melbourne photo by Steven Godbee

Vivaldi was in his day a forward looking master musician with a dramatic touch. He had a flaming imagination that drove him to create ensemble music as if he was painting his very own ‘passionate fresco of dramatic contrasts’.

There were three movements, which displayed Antonio Vivaldi’s remarkable sense for rounded form, clearly etched textures, imaginative phrasing and dynamic harmonies.

He had set his four violinists a great task and they rose to the occasion playing like virtuosic shooting stars.

The second piece was another Vivaldi, the Concerto in D Major for lute, strings and continuo, RV93, but now arranged for Mandolin.

It’s not enough to say the guest soloist Avi Avital  played brilliantly; it was how he shaped every phrase, leaving pregnant pauses so that we would hear the full extension and beauty of the string he had just played.

Vivaldi combined pastoral tenderness with lyric poetry as a sorcerer would weave a spell, and his influence on music since has been incalculable. This piece ended with a great and very lively Allegro, resonating with great clarity and extreme elegance.

The orchestra responded to Avital’s playing by performing at the very top of their own game, with soul-searching sounds of great beauty that made you feel warm all over. They had a still sense of purpose that was totally defining.

An interesting addition to the musicians playing on period instruments on this night was the Lirone, played by Laura Vaughan. This bowed stringed instrument was used during the late 16th and early 17th centuries and it provided a new layer of depth to the rest of the strings, being a bass member of the lire family of instruments. With 13 strings, a wide fingerboard, flat bridge and a leaf-shaped pegbox, it not only sounded wonderful but also looked amazing.

Brandenburg CelebrationNext was the orchestra’s wonderful rendition of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major that we all love, with its exquisite twenty eight variations of the melody that only confirm in the playing why it has remained so popular over the years.

The final piece of the first half was the first of the two compositions by musical genius Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) the Concerto in A minor BWV 1041, originally for violin, now arranged for Mandolin by Avital.

I have always thought that in so many ways Bach is more or less at the beginning and end of music historically at least. He composed music of great purity with a combination of harmonic blending and contrapuntal individuality.

You could have heard a pin drop in the hall when Avital in the Andante gently coaxed his Mandolin with the lightest of touches, to reveal all its secrets. Such sweetness of tone, beautiful colours, great depth and an inspiring distinctive sound completely addicted us all to his cause to bring the Mandolin back to its rightful place as a member of the lute family, a true classical instrument.

As the notes floated softly in the air with great clarity I couldn’t help but think that Bach would have heartily approved. It was riveting.

After quick refreshment at interval we were back for more Johann Sebastian Bach, the Sonata in E Minor BMW 1034 originally arranged for the flute, but now arranged for Mandolin.

Sensational ABO & Avital Quartet in action, photo by Steven Godbee

The staging was Quartet format; Avi Avital on Mandolin, Paul Dyer on Harpsichord, Tommie Andersson on Theorbo and Jamie Hey on Baroque Cello. Nothing would have prepared us for what was to come, not even the first Bach.

We gazed in awe while admiring the tender poetry, the elaborated ornament, the masterful and yet towering structure of this sensational sonata as played on the Mandolin.

During the Andante movement, Tommie Andersson with his sensational long-necked lute, truly shone. We were all swept along by the mystic beautifully balanced structure and fruitful sounds of the piece until the third movement.

Brilliantly and with a heightened sense of the sensitivity, dexterity, virtuosity and creativity required to perform Bach’s music with its complex structure and wealth of detail that utilizes and extends the full possibilities of the solo instrument, Avi Avital dazzled, like a rare diamond or shining star in the heavens above.

This was the piece of music he played that was to die for. Avi Avital instinctively ‘gets’ Bach, who often unpretentiously, and in all innocence, can express the simplest of musical imagery through the delicacy of his phrasing. Avital, playing Bach on the Mandolin perfectly, illustrated and highlighted with astonishing sweetness and depth Bach’s powerful harmonic movements.

The third movement demonstrated Avi Avital’s complete mastery over his tiny instrument, which acts like an extension of his hand as, with great sensitivity, he calls on it to deliver soul searching sounds of such beauty and intensity that it’s almost too much to bear.

While it doesn’t have the power of other stringed instruments, in the hands of Avi Avital, the Mandolin glitters and gleams like a ray of coloured light as it floods the golden sandstone in a Gothic cathedral. It’s aching beauty became a mighty roar.

Understandably after this piece the audience roared too.

As Avi Avital went off stage to enjoy a short break the Brandenburg gave us their soul searching rendition of the Sonata 2 in a cinque Op2 No 3 in C Major by Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751).

By then though we were all so hooked on the Mandolin we could hardly wait for Avital to arrive back on stage.

This is when he really rocked out playing the Danse sespagnole, arranged for mandolin, strings and continuo, by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) that had been re-interpreted by Avital. Falla’s work draws on influences from Spanish Folk and Gypsy music and it was lively and very passionate. OLE!

Then it was Béla Bartók (1881-1945) arranged by Avital. This is the piece that would set us all on fire.

Dramatic Hungarian music, the Mandolin now revealed the final jewel in it’s crown, its ability to produce sultry, sensuous tones with unrestrained unbridled joy and rigor.

Art and poetry became electrifying, as he bridged the glorious gap between the classical bright Baroque and the earthy, lusty tones of folk music, with his deft and faultless fingering.

The energy Avi Vital maintained throughout the up beat aspects of his performance was totally exhilarating.

He deservedly received a wild reception and standing ovation at the end for what was a truly remarkable recital, played by an artist with a captivating, charismatic and very intense presence on stage.

Following the finale he played two encores (the audience would not have let him settle for less).

The first was a solo encore Bucimis that only served to reinforce his international ‘rock god of the mandolin’ reputation.

Throughout the beginning slower movements Avital’s notes were gloriously and sensitively rendered,

Then as the tempo increased his hand virtually became a blur at times, as he offered his arrangement of a sensational Bulgarian fiery folk dance that literally made all our hearts stop.

When he finished the audience went totally ballistic.

He came back again, one more time.

WOW, was not enough to say, my Brandenburg buddy and I were both speechless with delight… truly words completely failed us as we left the auditorium, animated and inspired by what was an outstanding recital.

How would I describe a Baroque and beyond rocket ship ride of magical music? One word – AVITAL!

5/5, 10/10, 100/100

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

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