Mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital does not view his instrument of choice as a relic of the Baroque era. He’s on a mission to lift the mandolin into the mainstream. “I want to fill the historical gap in the mandolin repertoire, so there will be no shortage of good compositions for the instrument in future.”

An eight-string member of the lute family, the mandolin gained popularity in 17th century Europe. “At first, we had many types of instruments, all named the ‘mandolin.’ The mandolin in Venice was different in shape and tuning from the mandolin in Naples,” said Avital in an interview with Playbill. “What was common to all was that they were plucked string instruments. What we know today as the mandolin is the Neapolitan mandolin, which is to say eight strings, or more accurately, four pairs of strings with each pair playing the same note, tuned like the violin, in fifths: E–A–D–G.” A mandolin has metal strings and is played with a plastic pick.

To expand the limited options for the mandolin, Avital has arranged Baroque and folk pieces originally written for the violin, and also has commissioned works from contemporary composers. Apart from some works by Vivaldi, including the composer’s Concerto in C Major, RV 425, which Avital will perform June 7-8 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, “there’s not a lot of serious music written for the mandolin,” he said. “Unfortunately, the great composers — Bach, for example — never wrote one single note for mandolin. That’s tragic. People tend to think that’s because the mandolin wasn’t so popular. But I think it’s because the mandolin was very popular — so popular that it was considered more an amateur instrument than a classical or orchestral one. Therefore, composers didn’t relate to it as a professional instrument.”

Avital relates to the mandolin on a visceral level: “I definitely feel that the mandolin is an extension of myself,” he said. “When I play music, I almost have to remind myself that I’m holding the mandolin in my hand. When I’m engaged in the performance, I just don’t think about it. The mandolin literally merges into the music.”

VIDEO: Avital in Vivali’s Mandolin Concerto in C Major (courtesy of Deutsche Gramophon)