Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"Avital Meets Avital" at the 2013 Israel Festival

“Avital Meets Avital” was one of the more unique events of the 2013 Israel Festival. The idea all came about in September 2012, when mandolin-player Avi Avital received an invitation to perform at the Musikfest, an annual festival in Bremen, Germany. This is a classical music festival, but invariably includes one non-mainstream event they call a “surprise concert”. For this, they challenge a musician to do something he has never done before. Avi called his friend, double-bass and oud player Omer Avital. and they began working on the program we heard on May 23rd 2013 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA.  To complete the cross-genre ensemble, Avital and Avital were joined by pianist Omer Klein and percussionist Itamar Doari.

Avi Avital started learning the mandolin in Beersheba, his hometown. His teacher, Simcha Nathanson, was actually a violin teacher and he established a mandolin orchestra in the town. Following his army service, Avi Avital went to study with Hugo Orlandi in Padua, Italy. There, the young Israeli became steeped in the true nature of the mandolin. Today he performs Baroque- and contemporary classical works. Avner Dorman wrote his Mandolin Concerto for Avital; it includes references to bluegrass music, Middle Eastern tradition and Brazilian music. Performing with Klezmer musician Giora Feidman has also had a strong influence on Avital, and on many levels. Avital’s musical curiosity has opened up a wide vista of explorations into cross-genre music, these performances taking him to the great concert venues of the world to perform with many great names. My acquaintance with Avi Avital, however, was through his CD of works of J.S.Bach. I was now interested to hear him in a different setting.

Omer Avital was born in 1971 in Giv’atayim, Israel. Beginning his studies with classical guitar, he switched to acoustic bass and began studying- and arranging jazz. At age 17, he began performing with various bands. He moved to New York in 1992, collaborating with some of the greatest names in jazz and leading his own groups. Following the release of his debut album “Think with Your Heart” (2002), Avital returned to Israel for three years to study Composition, the oud and Arabic music theory at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. He returned to New York in 2005. Bringing in his rich legacy of oriental music, Avital continues to create works for his ensemble. Recent projects have been the “Debka Fantasia Cycle”, “Songs of Devotion” (Sephardic Jewish liturgical poems), a Concerto for Bass and Orchestra, and more. His works create a highly individual sound based on the musical traditions of Israeli ethnic groups.  

The music we heard at the Israel Festival concert was an interesting mix. Opening with a jazzy piece ,tinged with delicate, oriental timbres, we become aware of the music with which Omer Avital and Avi Avital have grown up. Then, for a different style: “Lonely Girl”, composed by Omer Avital, is nostalgic and sweetly sentimental, at times somewhat Greek in style, its melody moving sensitively among the artists. “Ana Maghrabi”, with Omer Avital’s skilful playing of the oud (and then the double bass), begins with him “inviting” his fellow players to join him. Octave melodies remind us of the music’s roots. The piece becomes spirited, inspiring fine solos. On the program, Avi Avital’s own original material spoke of strong rhythms, energy and oriental-styled melodies. As an ensemble instrumentalist, he was swept up into the storm of things; when soloing, he is poetic, sensitive and profound.  The inebriating oriental Hebrew song “Shedmati” was given delicate and imaginative treatment, with superb solo playing on the part of pianist Omer Klein. Klein’s quirky piece “España” bristled with modulations and ideas; the ensemble players were inspired by them and let their hair down, taking the audience with them! Omer Klein is a virtuoso pianist, bandleader and prolific composer. Born in Israel in 1982, he began playing- and composing music at age seven. He studied Jazz at the Thelma Yellin School of the Arts, playing concerts at age 16. In 2005, he moved to the USA, attending the New England Conservatory. Then centered in New York, he released several discs. He has also written music for theatre. Omer Klein’s inexhaustible flow of musical ideas sorts itself into articulate forms fired by a quick mind, superb technique and humor.

Then there was the piece composed by Omer Avital in memory of his father – intimate and heartfelt – with Avi Avital weaving its wistful mandolin melodies through the ensemble texture. Omer Avital’s “Morocco” began with mandolin alone, eventually, via humming, clapping and even some dancing, spiraling into an exuberant expression of unadulterated joy.  Omer Avital is a “natural”, unhindered by what seem to be the bass’s technical limitations. He strums, he rushes up and down the instrument’s neck like there were no tomorrow, he is all jazz one moment and all song the next. He is a passionate musician!

At age 17, Young Israeli-born percussionist Itamar Doari was already touring the world with some of Israel’s most renowned musicians. In recent years he has been touring and recording with bassist Avishai Cohen. Doari is a member of the “Yemen Blues” Band and has taken part in the Idan Raichel Project albums, his recordings, altogether, winning him high acclaim. Doari’s participation in “Avital Meets Avital” displayed a sensitive ear to each different item as well as good taste, clean gestures, restraint, joy and energy. Sitting on a cajón drum and surrounded by other drums, bells, cymbals etc., he quickly tuned into the mood of each piece. His solo piece was one of virtuosic flair and unbridled energy.

At 10 o’clock on a balmy Jerusalem evening, with the heat of a summer’s day well behind us, “Avital Meets Avital” brought four of Israel’s finest artists together to make music. This kind of event is fine festival fare. The audience enjoyed every moment of it.

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