I am pleased to present my interview with world-touring musician, teacher and recording artist Jacob Reuven. Yaki began his mandolin studies at the age of eight under the guidance of Prof. Simha Nathanson at the Beer Sheva Music Conservatory. Jacob Reuven performs as a soloist and as a guest artist with some of the best Israeli orchestras and ensembles including the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Israeli Sinfonietta,the Israel Chamber Orchestra and the Twenty First Century Ensemble. Jacob played under the baton of conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Mstislav Rostropovitch, Antonio Pappano, Mendi Rodan and Zsolt Nagy. Please see Yaki’s bio on for more information on his remarkable achievements and collaborations. This interview took place in May 2017, triggered by Yaki’s excellent performance of Avner’s mandolin concerto, which you can see above. – Christos
Tell me about this particular performance. When was it, at which place/concert hall and for which occasion i.e. was it a single concert, a festival, or something else?
The piece was performed as part of a festival dedicated to contemporary classical Israeli Music – “The Festival of Israeli Music”. The festival includes concerts in all of Israel. We performed our concert in a concert hall located in Zichron Yaakov – a small town, north of the center of Israel. The hall is part of a new cultural center named “Alma”. In the last two years it has been thriving extraordinarily, enabling the residents of the area, and generally tourists and Israelis, to enjoy a first class concert hall.
Not many people know this – but in this village – Zichron Yaakov – I was born!!!
I see that at the video you are performing with the Israel Camerata Orchestra Jerusalem. What is the relationship you have with the orchestra ?
The Israeli Camerata is the most prominent chamber orchestra in Israel. It is very closely managed by Maestro Avner Biron, its director and musical director. This is not my first performance with them – we have already performed concerti by Bach and Vivaldi together. Every time, it is a great privilege to play with this orchestra.
I believe that playing the Avner Dorman mandolin concert is challenging, as there are some not-so-common uses of the mandolin, e.g. strumming the chords behind the bridge, percussion-like effects, getting the mandolin out-of-tune etc. Also it seems there are many technically and rhythmically difficult passages. How would you describe this piece of music and the challenges to perform it live?
This piece, by Avner, is excellent. It is written very well for the mandolin, it integrates various musical styles and explores special, innovative sound effects that one can achieve with the instrument.
The special feature of this piece, I feel, is that Avner manages to create a musical place for the mandolin, as an instrument full of possibilities – and does so in a very artistic and sensitive way. The player receives a piece in which he can express himself very comfortably – which is far from self-evident.
Special effects were very wisely used. One can hear more nuances from the mandolin – but I feel that the strength of this piece is the lyrical, quiet parts, where I feel that both the melodic themes and the orchestration are genius.
Regarding technical difficulty – I find that this piece is very comfortable to play. It is written in a way that does not present a real technical challenge. One could also say that there are tens of contemporary, modern pieces that are much more difficult technically, as well as violin repertoire, which I regularly perform – such as sonatas for violin by Ysaye, in which the technical challenge is much more serious.
You are indeed a very active performer, and I have seen very exciting video performances with you playing solo or with the Kerman Mandolin Quartet, Kameratas but also orchestras. What is your favourite setup and why?
Each medium carries its own musical weight. The challenge and the musical curiosity are examined and require artistic depth in each and every ensemble. If I should really pick one – then chamber music with a mandolin quartet – this is a medium that I love very much.
In this concert you are playing your mandolin but you have also recorded a fair amount with a mandola. How do you decide which songs are a good fit and what do you try to bring out with the mandola to make it different from a mandolin?
The mandola is the alto instrument in the mandolin family. This instrument plays a very important role in the plucked string instrument world. First of all, it occupies the middle register in a plucked instrument quartet. Then too, the so beautiful color of a tenor as a solo instrument.
I think that historically, the mandola was a bit neglected – also concerning the quality of existing instruments in the world. I’m lucky to have the honor of playing on a mandola that belongs to Maestro Arik Kerman – but there are not many such instruments in the world.
On the other hand, the mandola is also neglected as regards repertoire and performers who choose the mandola as their primary instrument. This is why I see this “voice”, this “sound” of the mandola as unique. It requires more stage exposure. The repertoire is of course founded upon Bach’s cello suites, but there is a great variety of pieces that sound great on a mandola, I feel – mostly pieces that were originally written for viola. I have a dream that one day, one of my students will go all the way with this instrument, and will arrange Bartok’s viola concerto.
By the way – in my mandolin class in the Academy in Jerusalem I greatly encourage my students to play both mandola and mandocello.
I can see from your videos that you are using a rather unique technique of holding the pick. You are using I think the thumb and the middle finger to hold the pick, unlike the most common technique of thumb and index finger. How did you come up with this holding position and what role does it play in your extraordinary control, sound and speed?
Regarding technique, I believe that there are many ways to Rome. I suppose that 200 years ago there were excellent players whose way to hold the pick was different than anything we know today – they created great music and had an excellent technique.
My way of holding the pick is based on the idea of the bow. If you look closely, you will see that the first three fingers that hold the pick are very similar to the way one would hold a bow. The technique is very close to violin technique, because I was brought up on violin repertoire by a teacher, who was himself a violinist and a mandolin player. I wouldn’t even try to think that there is only one way to hold a pick. I hear many artists in the world who hold it differently, and they are great musicians. As regards the beauty of the sound, control of the tremolo and speed – for me, this is the right way.
What kind of projects are you involved in at the moment? What else have you planned for the near future?
In these days I’m recording Bach’s partitas and sonata for solo violin. There is also a large project of the Four Seasons by Vivaldi and Piazzola, mandolin with orchestral accompaniment. I also work continuously with my “16 Strings” Duo on a CD with music for two violins by Ysaye. The sky is the limit…
Recently, we have seen in Greece more people getting interested in the mandolin. Unfortunately, we are lacking (in Greece) a formal mandolin education system, and as a result the mandolin is taught mainly as a traditional/folks instrument and not as a classical one. What is the status of the mandolin education system in Israel, and what is your role in it?
Mandolin did serve as an instrument for general “musical education”. In Israel in the ‘60s – ’70s – ‘80s there were many children’s orchestras, youth orchestras and orchestras for adult amateurs. This educational institutions still exists today, partially.
This method uses the mandolin in order to familiarize people with music and playing, with the orchestral world. It creates a future audience for concerts – but those who are today world famous Israeli mandolin soloists did not grow out of these groups.
Be’er Sheva, the city that is home to the conservatory, from which all of the Israeli mandolin players came out, has an excellence track for the instrument, and the mandolin is viewed as an artistic solo instrument. When one considers content and attitude, mandolin education is not unlike violin education. After conservatory, outstanding students study for an academic degree in the Academy in Jerusalem.
As of today, the most important task I’m facing is to preserve this channel of mandolin education at its current level, and to further develop it. Nowadays I am the director of the Be’er Sheva conservatory, and I teach the mandolin in the Jerusalem Academy of Music. I have a sense of mission on this subject, and my work is painstaking.
What do you think is the future of mandolin, and what can it be done to increase its popularity in genres other than traditional/folk music?
I think that our condition isn’t bad at all. The mandolin, like other instrument, is versatile and can integrate into other styles. There is no bad style or instrumental image. One may perhaps play badly, which is another problem…
I’m glad to see the mandolin in videos by rock band, in Greek music, in Arab music. Moreover, familiarity with these styles contributes greatly to the development of musicians in the world, and influences new compositions for the instrument.
More metaphorically, think about this – the most interesting dog races are those which are a combination of several kinds. Classical mandolin players have a lot to learn about “idiomizing” the instrument – by watching musicians and playing ethnic music.
In order to generate a greater weight of classical repertoire for the instrument, one must commission new pieces, perform new pieces in the world, record new music, start competitions, encourage classical mandolin playing and create courses, master classes, blogs and explained contents – just like you do with your wonderful blog.
The future of the mandolin as regards the instrument itself – according to my own taste, the genius development of Arik Kerman, my mandolin builder, is revolutionary. It is important that the world seek this kind of sound in classical mandolins. Ideally, in countries that have, or that are developing classical mandolin performance tracks, the violin repertoire should form the foundation of such education.