In this series of interviews, we talk to renowned Mandolin players, makers and enthusiasts.
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Alon Sariel Interview
Alon Sariel (21), Born in Beer-Sheva (Israel), currently living in Jerusalem/Brussels, one of the world young and promising mandolin players.
As he is already touring all over the world, winning international and national competitions and is a member in several ensembles and orchestras – it seems like this promise is guarantied.
How did you get started in music? Was the mandolin your first instrument?
My first instrument was indeed the mandolin, later on I picked up the jazz guitar and recently the Renaissance lute.
It all began when I was about 8, back then I saw Aerosmith on MTV, probably because my brother was a fan of his, I even remember which clip it was: November Rain. When I saw that electric guitar solo I immediately decided I want to play the electric guitar, so badly that I made my mom take me the municipal conservatory in my city Beer-Sheva to learn to play it.
There in the conservatory we found out that electric guitar is an option when you’re 11 years old, and I was offered the classical one – but, oh sorry, too many classical guitarists, all the teachers are full and there is not a single place in the class for classical guitar.
Then, I don’t remember exactly what the director said, but I remember it was something like – you can play the mandolin, it’s like a guitar – but smaller… She told my mother and I all about the Beer-Sheva mandolin orchestra and it all sounded so magical. Very soon it turned out to be not a hair less magical than what I dreamed of…
When did you play your first gig/concert in front of a real audience? How did it go?
I guess my very first concerts were in mandolin ensembles at the conservatory, playing from Schubert’s “Musical Moment” to Saint-Seans “Swan” or something… Though my first solo performance is bright and clear in my mind:
It was at my first teacher’s class-concert, in the big hall of the Beer-Sheva conservatory where I give recitals up to now from time to time. I played a folk “Neapolitan Song” (that what was written on the top of my notes). Some how I remember I felt very good on the stage that day… Anyway, I guess it was pretty good because the next Friday at the orchestra rehearsal I got a lot of flattering from everybody and probably heard the word Bravo for the first time.
Tell us about the contexts in which you like to perform. For example, do you prefer to perform as a solo artist, with an orchestra or as part of a group?
I love playing solo, especially when the acoustics are good and it’s music I believe in.
Playing solo with a symphonic orchestra is absolutely amazing, I was first experienced in that when I was 17 and invited to play Ziguenrwisen (Sarasate, for violin) with the Beer-Sheva Simphoneitta. It was awesome, the power you feel behind you with all the woodwinds, strings percussion etc, I remember I knew the score so well I could conduct it myself. Last month I recorded the Vivaldi concerto for two mandolins with “The Barocade” – a very high quality baroque orchestra in Israel, that sounds totally different but, for me, just as exiting.
I had the chance to play mandolin parts in symphonic orchestras over the world, it’s fun especially when the music is good. In my experience, Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra op.31 is a brilliant piece and there are no words which can define the work with Maestro Daniel Barenboim. Concerning the mandolin parts – don’t look for a very dominant part but remember it may be very important sound-thinking.
For me, above all is chamber music. I am now working on Schoenberg Serenade with an Israeli ensemble called Kaprizma for a concert which is going to take place next month. Let aside that the music is WOW!, I enjoy every breath I take while playing it. A few months ago I recorded for Albany Records an original piece called Sonata a Tre composed by the Israeli famous composer Paul Ben Haim for mandolin guitar and harpsichord – true treasure. And last but not least is the Jerusalem Baroque Trio I founded a few years ago with my colleagues (Shir Shemesh – Recorders and Alexandra Polin – Viola da Gamba) where I enjoy playing the beautiful music of Telemann, Vivaldi, Samartini, Corelli, Tartini, Rossi and many more. The dynamics of a musical group is a secret no one could ever completely reveal…
I always love to come back to the Beer-Sheva mandolin orchestra rehearsals on sunny Fridays to play…
Besides all that, I recently got known to the magic of conducting, but that’s another story…
How do other professional classical musicians regard mandolinists? And do you think that the mandolin’s status and profile in the classical world needs to be raised?
Like everything in life, each coin has to sides. There are big fans of the mandolin, especially here in Israel and particularly in Jerusalem. But, yes I know that the mandolin suffers sometimes from a stigmatisation of an “easy” instrument, “folk-only” instrument etc.
There is never a limit to what you can do with the mandolin, and there are countless directions where you can take it. Most of the great composers through the history didn’t know mandolin players in such level as we have today, many of them didn’t even know the instrument, and especially not the modern instrument we today call mandolin.
As a classical mandolinist, one of the most important tasks is to create new quality music involving the mandolin, and another most important one is in my performance: I feel that I must try and convince every single one in the hall that the mandolin stands in one row with all the others, and when in the hands of a good musician, it could be just as dramatic, just as sensitive, just as crying and just as singing… In some cases even better (;
Who are the musicians that inspire you the most and which influenced your musical development?
I was very lucky to work with some of the most great musicians in the world…
Last year I met the trumpet player Markus Stockhausen, he’s a master of improvisation and intuitive music which I can say are also my strong sides. The “musical chemistry” between us was very good when we played together on Wight Night Festival for avaunt-guard in Tel-Aviv, and he invited me to play with him on his project Klangvisionen at a concert which is supposed to take place in May 21st in Koln, Germany. I also had the chance to played for clarinetist Giora Feidman, another master of intuitively, and received a lot from him.
In the Baroque and early music field I had the pleasure to work with the recorder artist Corina Martti of the Scola Canturum Basiliensis, with the lutenist Ofira Zakai which is one of the reasons I fell in love with that instrument, with violinist Ilan Gronich of HdK Berlin – for me he is one of the best interpreters of music by Bach and Mozart, the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim which is also an artist in body and soul, I have learned so much from working with him.
I believe a lot in ideals I received from these great musicians.
Please tell us about your work promoting the mandolin to young people.
I teach the mandolin in schools here in Jerusalem. The salary is not as good as playing gigs but just seeing the children’s motivation and their passion to music worth it all!
What mandolins do you own? Which one(s) is(are) your favourite(s)?
Whoever knows the Beer-Sheva school of mandolin must have heard of the Israeli type of modern mandolins.
A mandolin maker called Arik Kerman who lives in Tel-Aviv, invented a formula to make the mandolin in a way for which it has a much of a round and sweet sound, and can easily produce a very soft sound other than the metallic Neapolitan one… I could speak about it for hours but only one who hears it could understand.
I have one of his mandolins, which is my favorite.
This summer I won the Calace competition (Italy) and as first prize got a very nice A-style Calace, which I like very much.
My first professional mandolin was a M-30 Suzuki, which is the reason for my strong sentiments to the Japanese school – even though I sold it a few years ago to one of the girls in the orchestra…
When I was 13 I lived in Los Angeles, US, for one year. I studied Bluegrass and Jazz mandolin, back then my parents bought me for my Bar-Mitzva a new Breedlove mandolin… white… beautiful… actually I barely play it now, maybe I should start thinking of selling it too… (:
Playing with the international ensemble La Napolitana in Japan this coming Spring I would use an Embergher.
If someone knows about anyone selling any kind of baroque mandolin – be sure to let me know at *email@example.com.
Can you tell us how you have your mandolin set up, and about the strings and picks you use?
The strings I use are Thomastik and for most projects I use a Dunlop 0.58pick.
Do you have any advice or tips for beginning/intermediate/advanced players?
No matter on which level you are, try and not be closed minded, and never be fussy about the “originality” of the music you play.
Ralf Leenen once told me, it is of course very nice to play music that is originally written for mandolin, but what’s the use if it’s not a high quality composition? … My only concern really is to play “good music”, or at least – as opinions differ about that – music I really like.
So, yes, Bach, Tartini, Prokofiev, Ysaye … is all great music and if it sounds great on mandolin, it’d be stupid not to play it! And no, I don’t like all the music that is written for mandolin, and if I don’t like it I won’t play it “just for the sake of it” … that would be equally stupid …
Apart from yourself, of course, which players do you particularly admire and why?
Ralf Leenen who I just mentioned is one of them, first because he’s a great person, and secondly because of his taste, and because I believe he does great work which is very important for the mandolin world.
The other is Carlo Aonzo, being born in Italy and taught by his teachers – it is very impressive that he is open to all the non-classical wind of the mandolin world. He’s also a wonderful guy and for sure will have an important part in what future will say about the mandolin world of our time.
Tell us about your highest moments involving the mandolin in your life.
One concert last summer Spain, I don’t remember where exactly, it might have been Cordoba or Malaga… Anyway, I was touring with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Barenboim, and the stage there was no big enough to fill our usual sitting form so me and my friend Bishara the Celesta player where to sit right in front of the maestro as if we were soloists, I think we both had a presto vivace heart pulse that evening…
Another one was this summer, playing at the finals of the European Mandolin Award in Patras (Greece), it was very very exiting!
Last one is when I was invited to play Sarasate’s Ziguenerwisen with an orchestra and right after the first cadence – one of my G strings had broken… I think I can count on one had the times that I broke a G string – that is one of them… (:
What other instruments do you play?
Besides the mandolin I play the jazz guitar from an early age, I wish I could play also classical style but I just can’t have the right-hand finger-nails for that…
I can read scores on the piano, and I use it when I fill like improvising but I don’t really play it…
The baroque lute is what I am currently very interested in mastering, and I’m also looking for a Theorbo.
After playing the marimba for two years at the age of 11 I felt it doesn’t bring to the place I wanted so I stopped, recently I miss it more and more…
How would you like to develop as a musician in the future?
Together with Shir and Alexandra, my colleagues from the Jerusalem Baroque Trio, I’m moving to Brussels on February, to study at Brussels Royal Conservatory. I will be concentrating on conducting and on music from the Baroque era and earlier…
In later future I would like to establish my own mandolin orchestra, and to found the best mandolin quartet with the best mandola and luto-cantabile players in the world: I think the quartet is a good format for the mandolinist to develop as a musician.
I would like to keep making chamber music of the best quality, with the best players.
I would like to found a summer course for mandolinists and other plucked instruments where there would be a lot of chamber music of all kinds and styles.
I would like to teach the art of mandolin and have a lot of talented students, especially in places where it is not well known, and especially to children who this kind of activity could get them a new life – some what better then their life before they took the mandolin.
I would like to be able to let as many children as possible to touch the music and play – no matter which instrument.
Whatever happens, I will keep updating in my website www.alonsariel.com
Desert Island discs: which would be the one piece of music you would have to take? (throw in a second and third if you like!)
I’ll take the CD “Bach on the Lute”, Nigel North plays Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo on the lute – I seriously think no words exist to describe his playing.
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