What do musicians do with free time? Go to music stores, of course, and play everything in sight. Which is what mandolinist Carlo Aonzo did in November 2016 in Carter Vintage Guitars in Nashville (see above), when the world-renowned mandolin “god” was passing through that city with his trio.
If it be music, Aonzo can play it on his mandolin. He will demonstrate this at Dartmouth the week of February 5-10, where he will give a free public mini-concert on Tuesday, February 6, and perform on Friday, February 9, with the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra, his tour-de-force version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—with Aonzo playing on mandolin the solo written for violin, a feat only one of the world’s greatest mandolin virtuosos could manage, said DSO Conductor Filippo Ciabatti. But while few attempt this instrumentation for Four Seasons, it’s “in line with Baroque performance practices,” Ciabatti said: Vivaldi himself was a mandolinist, and musicians of his era felt free to play works on instruments other than the ones they were written for.
Here Aonzo is playing the Four Seasons portion called “L’Autunno (Autumn)” with Italy’s Ensemble Il Falcone, his impossibly fluid strumming creating the sustained notes that a violinist makes merely by drawing a bow. Il Falcone founder Guido De Vecchi wrote: “With this project, Carlo Aonzo expresses all the potentialities of the mandolin, playing the virtuosic and impressionistic Vivaldi of Four Seasons, demonstrating how the four double strings of the mandolin can distinctly express the adagios while giving rhythmic power and virtuosity to the fast tempos.”
The Vivaldi work shares the DSO program with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 13 (Winter Daydreams), a “precious gem” inspired by the winter colors and atmosphere, “as good as Tchaikovsky’s better-known symphonies,” Ciabatti said.
A native of Savona, Italy, Aonzo tours throughout northern Europe, Italy and the US as a soloist with chamber ensembles and orchestras, from symphony orchestras to the mandolin ensembles that exist in cities throughout the world. He also performs with the Carlo Aonzo Trio, which plays a range of folk, jazz and European styles. He created and directed the winter Festival Internazionale di Mandolino in Varazze, Italy. He is an active scholar of historic mandolinists and mandolin repertoire and has contributed to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. A “god” to mandolin players around the world, Aonzo has collaborated with mandolin organizations in the US, Europe and Asia. Since 2000 he has led the annual Manhattan Mandolin Workshop in New York; in 2006 he founded the International Italian Mandolin Accademia, which he directs; and he is on the regular faculty member at the mandolin-oriented Kaufman Kamp in Tennessee.
Here Aonzo shows his jazz side on “Latin Suite” with his trio at Trumpets Jazz Club in New Jersey in 2016:
Aonzo came from a musical family; his first mandolin teacher was his father. He went on to study with Ugo Orlandi, the current patriarch of the Italian mandolinists, at the Cesare Pollini Conservatory of Padua. Aonzo’s playing has been recognized with awards at prestigious competitions including the “Vivaldi” prize of the 6th annual Vittorio Pitzianti National Mandolin Competition in Venice as well as the 27th annual Walnut Valley National Mandolin Contest in Winfield, Kansas.
In an interview last year with the web publication Madolin Café, Aonzo sketched a vibrant musical upbringing. “I’ve been playing mandolin since I was a child. The mandolin is a tradition in my family and my father taught me. I got from him the love and passion for this instrument and he was a link to the roots of its tradition. I got my degree at the Conservatorium in Padova with Ugo Orlandi – a scientist of the instrument, with a knowledge of the history of mandolin like no one else in the world. I learned many important things from him about technique, repertoire, research and so on. I got from him one basic concept: how important our instrument is! I grew up in a mandolin orchestra, literally, since it was formed at home, where we also had our music school. My father gave (and he still does) a big contribution to the music developing in my city, Savona. As soon as I learned, I had a great training in teaching, since I did it right away, one year after I began studying music.”
His recorded output reflects his scholarship and passion to both champion the mandolin’s forgotten past and to develop its classical tradition into the future. He has recorded Paganini’s complete works for mandolin on period mandolino Genovese (Integrale per Amandorlino & Chitarra Francese, Arion). His recordings have also featured the works of early 20th-century Italian virtuosi with guitarist Beppe Gambetta (Serenata, Acoustic Music Records) and Italian immigrants to America with Gambetta and mandolinist David Grisman (Traversata, Acoustic Disc). His Orchestra a Pizzico Ligure’s recording of arrangements of Vivaldi concerti is a rare demonstration of the rich sonority of a modern, active mandolin orchestra. His CD Kaze with guitarist Katsumi Nagaoka both offers a respectful nod to historic repertoire and premieres a lively, sophisticated new composition. In 2016 he released his Four Seasons recording and, with the Carlo Aonzo Trio, the album A Mandolin Journey, on the international mandolin repertoire.
For Mel Bay he has published the concert video Carlo Aonzo: Classical Mandolin Virtuoso and the book & CD collection Northern Italian & Ticino Region Folk Songs for Mandolin; while for Hal Leonard he has released two books of his mandolin transcriptions, Bach Two-Parts Inventions and the Classical Mandolin Solos. As a researcher, he has been working on the history of his instrument and collaborated with the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He has given presentations on the iconography of the mandolin, in renowned institutions, including St. John’s University in New York, Boston University, Vancouver Italian Cultural Centre, New England Conservatory, Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, Vanderbilt College of Nashville, Berio Library in Genoa and National Instrument Museum in Rome. His current musical projects focus on further experimentation of the mandolin’s potentials and repertoire.
Aonzo has been performing and teaching in the US since 1997, he said. “I come about three times a year doing concerts, joining local mandolin orchestras and giving workshops. I can say that I’ve met almost everybody in the classical mandolin field in the US, and I’ve seen classical music’s steady development. Since 1999, I’ve been running a mandolin workshop in Manhattan that has inspired many mandolinists and has become a reference point for the classical mandolin. Since the first time I came here, I’ve seen the level of playing and knowledge grow exponentially. The level of mandolin playing has grown quite a lot thanks to lovers of the instrument that also have reference points with these kinds of events and activities.”