Israeli mandolinist Jacob Reuven and American guitarist Adam Levin, paired as Duo Mantar, are about to release their debut album as a duo. Music from the Promised Land, out June 11 2021 on Naxos, embodies their shared passion for Israeli music and Jewish songs. It includes music by seven Israeli composers, including three world premiere recordings and four premieres of arrangements for mandolin and guitar.
Jacob Reuven is a renowned soloist, a founder of the award-winning Kerman Mandolin Quartet, a professor at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, and a director of the Beer-Sheva Music Conservatory. His repertoire ranges from baroque to contemporary, and he is known for his performances of violin repertoire on his mandolin, which was custom-made by Israeli luthier Arik Kerman.
Adam Levin is a Chicago native, a former Fulbright Scholar, and recipient of too many awards to list here. Known for his multi-volume 21st Century Spanish Guitar recording project with Naxos, his work with Duo Sonidos, and his extensive work promoting classical guitar studies among young musicians, Levin is a professor of guitar at the University of Rhode Island and teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
Jacob Reuven and Adam Levin spoke to us about Duo Mantar and Music from the Promised Land.
You formed Duo Mantar in 2017. How did you meet and decide to collaborate?
Adam Levin: Our meeting was totally happenstance. I just searched my email and found that on July 4, 2017, my dad, who is a clinical psychologist and classical guitar and mandolin aficionado, wrote to me as he typically does with some musical treasure of the day. It was a link to Jacob Reuven performing his transcription of Belgian virtuoso violinist Eugene Ysaye’s Prelude “Obsession,” from his solo violin Sonata No. 2. I had also transcribed this work for solo classical guitar and was blown away by Jacob’s artistry.
I immediately wrote my dad back and said, “Absolutely incredible and very musical. I just wrote to him to see if he wants to collaborate.” On July 6, Jacob wrote me back thanking me for the note and said that he could not believe the timing because in that very instant he was looking for a guitarist to create a serious modern Israeli music program and recording as well as a program of Gabriel Leone’s Sonatas.
Jacob was living in Spain with his wife, Mari Carmen, who is also a professional mandolinist. So, I traveled to Murcia, Spain to see if there was musical chemistry, and we learned very quickly that we’re essentially like brothers. At that point, we began our musical partnership as Duo Mantar and delved into the exploration of modern Israeli music.
Up until that point, I knew absolutely nothing about Israeli music, so Jacob initially served as my eyes and ears, and together we slowly began to amass a collection of newly arranged works, commissioned works, and original mandolin and guitar repertoire.
The album opens with its most explicitly Jewish-themed music. Even non-Jews may recognize the “Hora” rhythm of the third of Marc Lavry’s 3 Jewish Dances, and the last of Paul Ben-Haim’s 3 Songs Without Words is based on a Sephardic folk melody. Lavry and Ben-Haim were German-born composers who emigrated to Palestine/Israel in the 1930s. Are they well known in Israel today? And for what instruments or configurations were these pieces originally composed?
Jacob Reuven: We are speaking about two immigrants that came from the land of Israel. In those days it was called Palestine by the British mandate. The Hora (by Lavry) and Sephardic Melody (by Ben-Haim) represent part of the heritage of Jewish music.
The Hora is a happy dance with roots in Russian Cossack music. The Sephardic Melody has roots in Southern Spain, Andalusia, from people who speak the local dialect, Ladino. For Israeli people, it represents one of two streams of immigrants, the first being Sephardic Jewish people, who come from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Morocco, and even Spain. And then there are Ashkenazi Jewish people who come from Eastern European countries. These two German composers took the compositional tools from western compositions and included their Jewish heritage and the environment of being in Israel in their music.
Ben-Haim is the symbol of Israeli music in the ’60s. Israelis look at him as Germans look at Beethoven. He tried to put oud, mandolins and guitars in his music. He tried to write Sephardic-Arabic music in the style of Western music. He researched himself through his music. Lavry, on the other hand, wrote many Israeli-inspired works from the perspective of being German. Ben-Haim connected the geographical colors of Israel to his music. Anybody who finds themselves researching Israeli music will find themselves listening to the music of these two figures.
The album showcases a wide variety of styles – pieces based on folk tunes, tremolo-heavy music with a Spanish flavor, challenging modern modes. Was one of your goals to show the scope of what’s possible for a duo of mandolin and guitar?
Adam Levin: Rather than recycling standard repertoire (much of which made me fall in love with the guitar!), I think it is compelling and necessary to step outside the box and push the instrument, and our chamber combination, to the next level by enlisting composers to write new music for us. The beauty of this process is that you can work with each composer to showcase our capacities as a chamber music group and the variety of music and styles available to us. The album is a portrait of the many different kinds of compositional styles, techniques, and sounds being incubated, developed, studied, and performed in Israel for the last 75 years.
Please tell us a little about the pieces that you commissioned. Had any of the composers never written for the mandolin-guitar configuration before?
Adam Levin: Working with composers is a joy as well as a humbling experience. I have been collaborating with composers since my days in graduate school when I would bring new pieces to my teacher Eliot Fisk and watch how we “massaged” works so that they would work on the guitar. Then I went to Spain as a Fulbright Scholar to investigate the new Spanish composers on the block, which led to commissioning 30 new works for solo guitar from the last four generations of living composers. I realized that I was, and still am, upon a renaissance in Spanish composition. Similarly, there is a huge basin of music available from Israel.
For me, working with a composer allows me to cultivate a new voice in myself through the composer’s music and to create something new and previously never been done before. It’s nerve-wracking because you have no idea what the music sounds like or if the public will enjoy and accept it. This collection of Israeli works includes three new commissions, including “Ahava” by Oren Lok, “Memories” by Josef Bardanshavili, and finally “Oriental Pantomime” by Jan Freidlin. None of these composers had explicitly written for mandolin and guitar, but Bardanashvili and Freidlin both have guitar works in their catalog.
The mandolin and guitar combination is uncommon, but beautiful and complementary. Commissioning these works not only allowed us to expand the available repertoire, but enabled us to explore in great depth our voice as a musical partnership.
Jacob, please tell us about your custom-made mandolin. How has luthier Arik Kerman improved upon traditional construction?
Jacob Reuven: Tel-Aviv mandolin luthier, Arik Kerman, has been a guide and mentor since I was a student at the Jerusalem Academy. He has ushered in huge improvements on the traditional designs of mandolins by intensely researching the sound of mandolins from around the world. This research has taken him to Italy, Germany, the United States, and he has drawn inspiration from the traditional design of violins from Cremona, including the famous violin builders Stradivarius and Guarneri.
The innovative construction of his mandolin includes a double top, so that you essentially have two mandolins in one. There are two soundboards created using the same wood that guitar luthiers use; the back and sides are made of maple or American mahogany. These innovations result in a classical instrument that is able to project in the largest concert stages, even over an orchestra as a solo instrument.
Are there passages on the recording where you would not have been able to give the performance you did if you were playing a more standard mandolin?
Jacob Reuven: Arik Kerman’s instruments have a more “classical” sound that is warmer, rounder and has resonance. The Kerman mandolin is closer in sound to the guitar than the traditional Italian mandolin. All of this music could be recorded on other instruments; it’s just a matter of taste. Someone could prefer the sound of a German or American mandolin. My aim was to approximate the sound of the lute and guitar.
Arik’s instruments have a huge sound with incomparable clarity. The sound is rich and full of overtones that I have yet to find in other instruments. The technical parameters and the balance between strings are impressive. Basically, you have a sound that maximizes your ability to express whatever kind of music you want.
What was the recording process like? Was the album recorded during the pandemic, with safety measures in place in a recording studio?
Adam Levin: We were very lucky and completed the recording two months before the discovery of COVID-19 and five months before the global shutdown.
The recording process was intense, to say the least. It’s nothing like performing before a live audience where you practice, get up on stage, perform for 90 minutes or so, and then walk off and celebrate. We came together with nearly 80 minutes of new music to record in four days, so we were in the recording studio for five to six hours of recording each day.
To remain fresh, inspired, and relaxed is quite the feat. There are parts of pieces that should be easy to record (in addition to, of course, the tricky passages), and somehow in the moment you can’t play it, and you become frustrated. It’s a psychological game.
The whole process was facilitated by arguably the world’s leading recording engineer, Norbert Kraft. Norbert has the unique ability to serve not only as an incredible engineer, but also as a producer. His ears are so refined. As I see it, he is basically our sound psychologist, offering his advice on which areas work and which don’t. With him in command central, the whole process moves like a well-oiled machine.
We recorded the entire album in a beautiful church north of Toronto with two microphones to capture the instruments in the space and a one-directional mic for the guitar. It’s always a tradeoff when recording in a church versus a studio because you get this natural pristine acoustic which is super inspiring, but at the same time, you have to deal with extraneous noises from birds, rain, cars, trains, etc. In my estimation, working around the elements is totally worthwhile and leads to a more natural and buoyant performance.
Are there some selections that are particularly meaningful to you as a musician and/or as a human being? Can you choose one or two and tell us why?
Jacob Reuven: It’s difficult to choose one piece over another because I love each note and piece on this CD. I would say the arrangement of Marc Lavry’s music, originally for violin and piano, is absolutely fantastic. Gregg Nestor exhibits extraordinary craftsmanship, his arrangement easily sits alongside the original. I’m super thankful to Gregg for his genius in arranging this music. This portrait of Hebrew melodies and dances is important as well as his perspective on Jewish heritage.
The other composition I would choose is “Memories” by Josef Bardanashvili, which stretches the limits of both instruments. There are no cut corners in his writing. It’s uncompromising and serves the music first, never sacrificing his identity as a composer or for technical boundaries or idiomatic considerations. It’s written so authentically and we have 11 minutes of absolute beauty.
Adam Levin: I must preface my answer by saying that we chose each and every one of these pieces after parsing through hours – or rather years – worth of music. To choose one or two of them is to choose all of them because they come together as a package.
I know that Jacob’s favorite works are Bardanshivili and Lavry, so I’m only going to copy him once! “Memories” by Bardanashvili is a masterwork. I haven’t seen many pieces of this quality. The way that Josef engages the instruments with one another, separately, and then in dialogue is – in short – incredible. This piece is not light-hearted as it delves into the past as a summation of the most distant, intimate, sensitive, and palpable memories. The two instruments share these memories in fragments, at times delicately, at times more ferociously, and sometimes in unison. When we speak of music as the means to expressing the full myriad of emotions, this piece so completely and successfully accesses each and every one of them.
The audience must also listen to Ittai Rosenbaum’s work. To me, it represents many familiar sounds from my childhood (i.e Bach, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, etc.). Jazz was always coveted in my household, as was the music of J.S. Bach. My dad would strum and then solo on his archtop jazz guitars and then put on albums of some of the greats bopping from one harmony to the next. This piece was demanding for me as a guitarist because it was originally composed for the piano, so translating the work in a manner that sounds natural on the guitar was challenging. This piece is meant to dazzle without regard to technical hurdles.
Here in the United States, we’re seeing more live music events planned in places where the pandemic has been subsiding. I know both of you have numerous projects and responsibilities. Are there live concerts in the near future for Duo Mantar?
Jacob Reuven: I did perform live concerts during the pandemic. I went to Germany, Italy and Sweden, always following the current and latest COVID rules. I was really encouraged by these concerts because I saw so much humanity in the orchestras and from the audiences inside the halls and via live stream. In all of these tours, I felt this energy from the public, the musicians, and even the people at the airlines who facilitated my travel! I’m very hopeful for future concertizing as Adam and I are already booking concerts for the upcoming seasons.
What do you hope listeners will take away from listening to the album?
Jacob Reuven: I want the listener, first and foremost, to imagine and enjoy the beauty and richness that Israeli and Jewish culture brought into the world through the medium of music (and our plucked instruments). I want each listener to finish the last note of the CD with a sense of curiosity for other sounds from around the world, which may include Arabic classical music, a trio of oud, qanan, and percussion, a solo oud performance, or maybe even an Egyptian or Andalusian orchestra. I want them to enjoy the music (the fruits of creativity!) and the expression that exists around the world.
Adam Levin: This album should – we hope – give audiences an aural image of Israeli music from the last 75 years. I want the public to go into this musical journey with an open mind and exit with a sense of freedom to explore music from around the world. I hope that the public will sense our adventurous spirit and seek to challenge themselves with perhaps some of the more dissonant and abstract works on this album. Seeking to expand our bandwidth for the unfamiliar and the unknown often makes the consonant and familiar even more meaningful.
And, I want this album to serve as an introduction to Duo Mantar. Hi! We have much more in store for our fans! Stay tuned!
Music from the Promised Land is out June 11 2021 on Naxos. Pre-order here.