Israeli drummer shines with L.A. Jewish Symphony

Special to The Times

The Los Angeles Jewish Symphony turned up Sunday night at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre with "Ahavah: From Israel With Love," a program guaranteed to be unfamiliar to even sophisticated music lovers unless they happened to be residents of Israel.

All of the works were U.S. premieres. None of the composers was anywhere close to being a household name in this country. But there was one performer who ought to be: a provocative percussionist from Tel Aviv, Chen Zimbalista.

Zimbalista is a young, muscular, intense dynamo with charisma to burn and a precise technique that knows no stylistic bounds. He's also a showman who knows how to make an entrance.

With the house lights down, two other percussionists placed to the left and right above the stage dueled on timbales and congas, giving way to Zimbalista perched in front of a set of trap drums.

He then reeled off an extraordinary solo, one with kinetic impact, a sense of direction and melodic logic -- and it also swung like mad. Why can't all drum solos be like this, instead of the usual aimless, boring flailing about that we get from even skilled drummers?

Zimbalista made easy work of Hadas Goldschmidt-Halfon's fascinating new percussion concerto, "Knock on Wood" (ha ha), with its difficult two-handed polyrhythms on marimba, bongos, temple blocks and tom-toms and its gently syncopated slow movement on triangles and glockenspiel.

And with conductor Noreen Green and orchestra scrambling to keep pace, Zimbalista impishly led everyone, including us, in a frantic Shlomo Gronich scherzo called "Go," in which the audience was often asked to restart the piece's engines by shouting, "Go!"

Nothing in the first half of the program, alas, was as arresting as the Zimbalista vehicles. Hanoch Jacoby's "King David's Lyre" (with narration by actor Herzl Tobey) dates literally from the day Israel was founded (May 14, 1948), and it sounds like a building-block piece with its basic mournful Hasidic-flavored tunes and dance rhythms.

Three excerpts from Lev Kogan's "Suite Hassidic 'Chabad' " and Yehezkel Braun's Concerto for Horn and String Orchestra were pleasant, while Laszlo Rooth's naively banal Variations on a Sephardic-Jewish Romance was thankfully over after three minutes or so. A second guest from Tel Aviv, French horn player Alon Reuven, was the steady, mellow soloist in the latter three pieces.

The evening concluded with a sharp swerve into another sphere, Israeli popular songs as sung by Tehilla Lauder.

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