Mandolinist Avi Avital performs with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Laura Jackson. CONTRIBUTED BY JEFF ROFFMAN
Photo: Jeff Roffman
Photo: Jeff Roffman

ASO review: Mandolinist Avi Avital brings tiny instrument center stage

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.

Guest conductor Laura Jackson, who served as the ASO’s assistant conductor from 2004 to 2007, began the evening with the first suite from “Ancient Airs and Dances” by Ottorino Respighi. This proved a perfect setup for Avital’s performance, as the composition begins in a pleasant Baroque format, only to expand to reveal a rich Romantic depth. Jackson, an expressive, demonstrative conductor, nearly danced along with the orchestra during the second movement, a galliard. Her obvious enthusiasm for the music translated to the orchestra, which performed with a restrained brilliance. In one particularly notable section, cellist Daniel Laufer played a solo passage that showcased his caramel resonance and bell-tone clarity.

On the face of it, the grand Symphony No. 6 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky seemed an odd choice to close the program. The soaring romantic writing, with strings that sing out and sing loud, is another world away from the Vivaldi. In the superlative performance, masterfully conducted by Jackson, the most striking section of music occurred not in the raucous third movement but in the finale. Led by the violins, the ASO string section produced a series of disembodied, seesaw chords — a thick lather of dissonance, the music pushed back and forth like a ship on a tossing, churning sea. After the crowd-pleasing third movement, the subdued fourth could feel like a letdown, but instead was a fitting coda for the evening.

CONCERT REVIEW

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Avi Avital

8 p.m. Dec. 1. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Dec. 3. $27-$89. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.

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