KINGSTON, R.I. – July 15, 2021 – Classical guitarist Adam Levin is a veteran of nearly a dozen albums, but he still gets a charge out of hearing his music on the radio.
Tuning in to WFMT-FM out of Chicago, Levin recently caught his newest album, “Music from the Promised Land,” recorded with renowned Israeli mandolinist Jacob “Yaki” Reuven as the combo Duo Mantar.
“It always makes you smirk,” says Levin, a teacher of classical guitar at the University of Rhode Island and artistic director of the annual URI Guitar Festival. “When your music flies across the global airwaves while you’re just sitting at home, it’s a great feeling knowing the music is circulating and impacting new audiences.”
The album, released June 11 by Naxos, is already making waves. The combination of mandolin and guitar reached the top spot on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Albums chart the week of June 26 and stayed there for two weeks. It was recently third on the chart.
“I don’t know the last time a classical guitar or mandolin recording made it to the top of the charts,” Levin says. “It’s truly a dream. As classical musicians, we don’t really think of the Billboard charts as being achievable.”
“Music from the Promised Land” showcases Duo Mantar’s commitment to exploring the rich variety of Israeli music while expanding the repertoire available for mandolin and guitar. The 14 tracks on the album range in style from the diaspora of Babylonian Jewry to European klezmer traditions and Balkan Ladino songs to contemporary American influences. (Duo Mantar will play selections from the album when they open their tour at the URI Guitar Festival, Oct. 14-17.)
“What people will hear is that, like the people of Israel, its music is a melting pot of so many influences, cultures, folk traditions, and compositional traditions. There’s something for everyone,” Levin says. “What I want people to walk away with, beyond enjoying the richness of this Israeli repertoire, is an open-mindedness and a curiosity for those musical and cultural forms and traditions that are less familiar. This album pushes audiences beyond their comfort zone and into a new musical horizon.”
Duo Mantar has been playing together since 2017, and Levin, a native of Chicago’s North Shore who lives in Ashland, Massachusetts, can thank his father, a professional clinical psychologist and amateur classical guitarist and mandolinist. His father sent him a YouTube video of Reuven performing a solo violin piece (“Obsession” by Eugene Ysaye) that he had transcribed for mandolin. Levin attempted the same thing, but for guitar.
“I was just blown away,” Levin says.
Out of the blue, Levin emailed Reuven on July 4, 2017. Reuven wrote back and said he was coincidentally looking for a classical guitarist to record two projects, one of which was the Israeli music project. Levin got on a plane to Spain, where Reuven lives with his wife.
“We were immediately friends. We sat down, plucked our two instruments and realized there was this profound musical chemistry between the two of us,” says Levin. “A few minutes of practice, days of living it up in southern Spain, and there you have it, Duo Mantar is born.”
Over the last four years, the duo has commissioned original works and uncovered and arranged existing compositions to create a portrait of Israeli music over the last 75 years. The first fruit of their work is “Music from the Promised Land,” which features works by such leading Israeli composers as Marc Lavry, Paul Ben-Haim, Jan Freidlin, Yehezkel Braun, Josef Bardanashvili, Oren Lok, and Ittai Rosenbaum. Among the songs are lively traditional Jewish dance tunes, a lush sonata by Braun that explores the harp-like sound created by blending guitar and mandolin, and an energetic work by Rosenbaum that sounds like a marriage of Bach and jazz.
“The Memories,” an avant-garde work by Bardanashvili, the father of modern Israeli composition, is the album’s deepest work, says Levin. “There’s dialogue between the two instruments that explores fragments of memories from the past,” he says. “It’s a powerhouse work, both musically and technically.”
Among Freidlin’s two songs is “Oriental Pantomime,” which Levin and Reuven commissioned for the album. “You can hear references to Bartok,” he says. “It’s a fun piece, at times even a bit of a musical circus.”
The album was recorded over four days in October 2019 in Newmarket, Canada, under the guidance of producer, engineer and editor Norbert Kraft. Instead of a recording studio, Kraft always opts for recording in St. Paul’s Church, where the church’s acoustics bring out the best of the two instruments and maximize creative expression, Levin says.
Before this project, much of the Israeli repertoire was unknown to Levin. As a classical musician, he’s spent almost his career performing works by the legendary composers – from the Spanish greats like Joaquín Rodrigo and William Walton to the works of Bach and Scarlatti. The Naxos recording project with Reuven was a gateway to his Jewish heritage.
“This album allowed us to explore our musical friendship as well as really dig deep and discover what it means to be Israeli, what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be musicians performing music that taps into our heritage, our roots,” he says.
Duo Mantar is just one of many projects Levin has in the works. A product of the New England Conservatory (M.M in guitar performance, 2008) and a student of American guitar virtuoso Eliot Fisk, Levin has performed around the U.S. and across four continents, while being honored as a Fulbright Scholar and winning numerous awards.
Levin, who studied in Spain as a Fulbright Scholar, has commissioned more than three dozen chamber and solo compositions by noted Spanish composers for a four-volume collection, “21st Century Spanish Guitar.” The final volume of the 13-year project will be released by Frameworks Record Label on Aug. 20. It will be Levin’s 12th album.
“This has been a labor of love, and the composers and myself are excited to share this new music,” he says. “Volume four includes a blockbuster new concerto with orchestra by Eduardo Morales-Caso and four solo works by three generations of Spanish composers, including José Luis Turina, the grandson of Joaquín Turina, one of the forefathers of Spanish music from the late 19th and 20th centuries, as well as works by Salvador Brotons, Jorge Muñiz and Leonardo Balada.”
Levin also recently completed an all-Spanish album with the Great Necks Guitar Trio and is working on a project of new Brazilian music with violinist William Knuth, as Duo Sonidos. He is also building a music school in Mexico City as part of the larger programming offered by the non-profit organization he co-founded, Kithara Project, which is dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth through the classical guitar. (Learn more at www.kitharaproject.org.)
“All these recording projects would be in vain unless I can encourage the next generation of young guitarists to play this repertoire,” he says. “I love playing this music. But if it’s going to live on, it must live on in the hands of guitarists, near and far. This will only serve to exponentially increase the number of audience members that will have the opportunity to enjoy this music.”