REVIEW: Australian Brandenburg Orchestra Goes For Baroque Playing Vivaldi On A Mandolin

Avi Atival performs with Paul Dyer (left) and Tommie Andersson (right). Photo: Steven Godbee

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with Avi Avital

Angel Place Recital Centre, Sydney
May 7

An Israeli from Berlin walks into a concert hall in Sydney and plays Baroque music on a mandolin. It sounds like a joke, and you’ll love the punchline.

This isn’t some folk festival. It’s the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital is the latest soloist to take the stage as part of the Brandenburg’s 25th anniversary series.

The combination isn’t as wacky as the first impression creates. The mandolin belongs in the lute family and the Neapolitan version was a classical instrument long before Woody Guthrie got a-pluckin’.

Avital, 34, is a dashing figure with black flowing locks, a black velvet jacket and black patent leather shoes whose stage presence seemed to entrance a number of prominent Sydney women, judging by the comments I overheard.

His passion and joy spread infectiously through Paul Dyer’s orchestra as they tackle Vivaldi, JS Bach, Pachelbel and Albinoni before throwing caution to the wind with the addition of 20th Century composers de Falla and Bartok.

The program had a greatest hits quality that adds appeal for first timers amid the Dyer’s stalwart audience, beginning with Vivaldi’s Concerto No 10 in B Minor for four violins, a shimmering, tumbling work that in parts is a precursor for Four Seasons, propelled along by the chatter, like birds at evening roost, between violins.

Avital first appears for the second Vivaldi work, playing the lute part in Concerto in D Major, RV. 93. Performing without a score adds to his rock star appeal, but the surprise is how, despite its distinctive sound, the eight steel-stringed mandolin finds its place so seamlessly in the orchestra, as well as setting a pizzicato tone for the evening.

Avital’s genius is the way makes his instrument ebb and flow, from frantic strumming to single sustained notes and the rhythms he creates between notes, imbuing each work with a fresh and seductive new viewpoint.

Pachelbel’s well-worn Canon in D Major follows, but Dyer avoids the dirge-like cliche that so often plagues the world’s second-most recorded work, opting instead for a light and jaunty touch that fills it with joy.

Avital’s mandolin substitutes for violin in Bach’s Concerto in A Minor BMV 1041 and then for flute in the intimate and exquisite Sonata in E Minor, where Tommie Andersson’s subtle performance on the theorbo, a long-necked lute, also shines, especially during the andante.

The program concludes with two modern works, arranged by Avital, to highlight his instrument, beginning with the Romani passion of Manuel de Falla’s Danse Espagnole before the six-part ethnic medley of Bela Bartoks Romanian folk dances. It’s a thrilling, invigorating climax that left both the audience and performers pumped enough to deliver two encores.

His first was Avital’s Purple Haze moment. Bucimis is a rollicking a Bulgarian folk song, in 15/16 time, he begged an accordionist to teach him backstage at a music festival. It gathers momentum with Dervish-like fever until it becomes a blur of strumming that becomes an aural endorphin rush.

Who knew the mandolin was so addictive?

It’s fitting that as he celebrates 25 years of the national treasure he founded, Paul Dyer, a musician not shy when it comes to onstage flamboyance, gets the chance to sit back, smile and bask in the pleasure of another’s performance.

Avital was an inspired choice of soloist by Dyer and under his leadership the ABO continues to be as inspiring as it has been for a quarter of a century.

* The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with Avi Avital performs in Sydney May 14 and 16, and Melbourne May 17 and 18.

Now watch Avi Avital play Bucimis.

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