Avi Avital and the Venice Baroque, in Sizzling Communion

03.12.15
Avi Avital
The New York Times

The words “superstar” and “mandolinist” still look odd next to each other. Yet in the classical world they are starting to be joined with some frequency to describe two players who, in very different ways, combine virtuosity on an instrument with generous helpings of onstage charisma. One is Chris Thile, an American trained in bluegrass who has recently made notable ventures into classical repertory. The other is the Israeli-born Avi Avital, who on Wednesday gave a performance of 18th-century Italian concertos at Zankel Hall with the Venice Baroque Orchestra that was nothing short of electric.
Most of the music was taken from “Vivaldi,” a new CD from Mr. Avital and the ensemble, including pieces by that composer that were originally intended for mandolin and orchestra and others sensitively arranged by Mr. Avital. Familiar works like “Summer” from “The Four Seasons” virtually flew off the page in high-energy, joyous readings.
The chemistry between the ensemble and Mr. Avital was palpable. 
Assigning the second mandolin part to a soprano recorder was an interesting choice: It brought out the rustic charm in the music and lent quiet pathos to the simple melody of the Andante.
Slow movements like that one showed off Mr. Avital’s deep musicality. In the Largo from Vivaldi’s Concerto in D for Lute, Strings and Continuo, he rendered the lovely melody with a certain unsentimental matter-of-factness, setting the scene for a series of variations that grew ever more expressive and insistent.
Mr. Avital switched to a flashier, more theatrical mode for Paisiello’s Concerto in E flat for Mandolin, the lone Neapolitan piece in a sea of Venetian music and the only one featuring a cadenza that offered a glimpse of the instrument’s versatility. That was nothing, though, next to the eye-watering virtuosity of his first encore, an arrangement of a Bulgarian folk tune that zoomed among folk, rock and contemporary-music idioms with breathtaking fluidity. Read the rest of the review