Pearls from a mandolin

Alon Sariel

Who could ask for anymore more than a mandolin in the palm of your hand: Israeli-born mandolinist Alon Sariel visits South Africa this month. Photograph courtesy www.letsgo.co.za

HISTORY WILL TELL you the mandolin’s popularity has wavered. It played second fiddle to the fiddle. And when the guitar came into fashion, the mandolin was subject to design modifications, forcing it to take a path less travelled. But good stuff always rises to the surface: When the powers that be put a mandolin into the hands of Alon Sariel, it grabbed him by the heart and the fingers and hasn’t let go. He chatted to My View from Germany last weekend, prior to his brief South African tour.

He tells the story of his roots with the mandolin on his website.  To paraphrase, when he was eight, his world changed. Picture the scenario. It was the 1990s. He was the youngest of five children. His siblings were all teenagers. And the beat of rock and pop permeated his home. His parents decided he should learn music. “They tried all sorts of gym-oriented classes first (which were totally not for me!),” he quips. “But then they gave me the choice of music.” But what instrument would it be?

“An electric guitar!” was his unequivocal unmoderated eight-year-old choice. But the music conservatory he was to learn at wasn’t convinced, quailing at the idea of a child making electric guitar riffs with abandon, and “They offered me the mandolin instead. ‘It’s just like a guitar,’ they said.” They weren’t wrong. “It’s been my voice ever since,” says Sariel, who now in his early 30s, has wooed and wowed the music fraternity internationally, with many concerts recordings and international awards under his belt.

“Early on, I knew if I wanted to have an international career,” Sariel, who was born in the Israeli city of Beersheba, adds. He currently lives in Germany but doesn’t refer to himself as a German immigrant. “I don’t feel that connected to any piece of land – probably like many of my generation. I don’t feel more at home in Berlin than in New York and I think that I do have a mission in this world and it is to spread this music around.”

And the mandolin is small enough to be carried on one’s back, but he says “my instrument is the thing that goes before me, leading me to fascinating places.”

So, you may have been fortunate enough to have seen him perform with Camerata Tinta Barocca, under the baton of Erik Dippenaar, at St Andrews Church in Cape Town on February 7. If you did and you’re now in Gauteng, you’re in the right place. Sariel performs again for Brooklyn Theatre on February 10 and 11 and for Glenshiel on the evening of February 11.

Included in his repertoire in South Africa is a concerto by Emanuelle Barbella who would have celebrated his 300th birthday this year. “It’s a wonderful piece and I really enjoy playing it,” he says. “Barbella?” you might say. “Bar—who?” You might need to google ‘mandolin’, and come away with the belief that’s it’s all terribly old. You wouldn’t be wrong, but you shouldn’t assume it’s irrelevant. Or boring. Sariel says there is a fair amount of mandolin music being written today.

“It’s part of my goal. I try to commission work from living composers whose work I appreciate. Many of the great composers in the classical traditions, like Brahms or Schumann, ignored it. It wasn’t popular during their lifetimes. I wouldn’t like to see the mandolin fade into obscurity this century. So it’s my mission to get audiences to know and hear about this instrument.

“A few years ago,” he says, “I performed Gilad Hochman’s Nedudim (Wanderings). It’s a wonderful piece. It premiered in London, performed in Jerusalem and was recorded in Berlin. It’s garnered lots of attention. I love it because of the part of the mandolin: Some of it is improvised, some is written … when you listen to it, you may think you’re listening to an oud. The work really is a journey.”

Sariel says his biggest challenges are budgetary. “Not everyone is convinced yet of the value of the mandolin. Especially in today’s market when budgets are being cut, everyone wants to go for the secure thing. And the secure thing might well be Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. Everyone knows it. People love it. It fills halls. If you start with new music with an instrument that is not very known, that doesn’t have a big core repertoire then it is always a risk.

“Some people are curious for something new; others are conservative,” he praises Brooklyn Theatre for being the impetus of his current SA tour and he admits, in spite of the challenges, it is about love: “I love to play the historical instruments. The mandolin of the 18th century is not the mandolin of the 19th century. And they both differ from the modern mandolin.”

In his recordings, he tries to remain true to the original by playing composition, but describes the challenge of accessing an historical instrument as considerable. “Because the mandolin was never as respected as the violin, it wasn’t preserved with as much status as a Stradivarius, for instance. And it was corrupted, from a design and conservation perspective.”

Sariel delights in playing ‘the real thing’ and in finding “original pearls to add to my repertoire. It is a privilege to play these works to an audience who has not heard them before. I don’t shy from arrangements, however: that would be silly, as the mandolin’s repertoire is limited.”

His most recently published album, Telemandolin comprises music arranged to feature the voice of the mandolin. “Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) didn’t write for mandolin. He just is one of my favourites.”

Sariel brings three programmes to South Africa. Why? “If you have to tour with Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and Alban Berg, it’s a lot to keep in your head or suitcase. I know people often tour with the same programme. But in my case, the concerti are ten minutes and I know them well.

“Bach has it all,” he concedes, when pushed for the composer he would choose to play if he could only choose one. “It’s impossible to describe why in words. I need to just play his work. It’s like he knew all the music he made before and after him.”

  • Sariel performs at the Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park, February 10-11. Visit brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012 460 6033.
  • He also performs at Glenshiel, 19 Woolston Road, Westcliff on the evening of February 11. Call Saul Bamberger: 083 414 0041 or visit Olde ‘n New Recitals on Facebook.
  • In addition, he performs the Valentine’s Concert at Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park in Pretoria on February 14 @ 19:00. It’s called Mandolino Napolitano — Neapolitan Love Songs and features Sariel in collaboration with Salon Ensemble, featuring accordion, piano and cello and musical arrangements by Willem Vogel. Visit www.brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012-460-6033.
  • On February 18, he performs in Stellenbosch at the Oude Libertas Summer Season Festival.
  • His published recordings will be on sale at the performance venues.