Israeli percussionist Chen Zimbalista makes some noise

Chen Zimbalista (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Chen Zimbalista
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
In a world which seems to undergo seismic – some, sadly, on a cataclysmic scale – changes at an ever-increasing pace there is much to be said for seeking solace in the arts. When your brow is feeling well and truly beaten, and your nerves are all ajangle in the wake of yet more political shenanigans – domestic or international – or, maybe, after just navigating your way home from work on our eventful roads, what could be better than slipping the cans on and drifting away on an air from a Beethoven symphony, or getting into some down and dirty rock music head banging?
There is much to be said for making a grab for tried and tested sounds that are cozily familiar and, hence, duly comforting. Then again, hearing something new can set the pulse racing and transport you to a different sensorial plane, thereby offsetting any detrimental residue of everyday life.
The program of the forthcoming confluence between internationally acclaimed Israeli percussionist Chen Zimbalista and the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion promises to provide some of the latter added value. The series takes in concerts at the Performing Arts Center in Tel Aviv (January 6, 8 p.m.), the Performing Arts Center in Ashdod (January 7, 8:30 p.m.), the Meir Nitzan Culture and Art Center in Rishon LeZion (January 11, 8:30 p.m.). The repertoire features a couple of richly textured works by Rimsky-Korsakov – Capriccio Espagnol and the dreamy ever-popular Scheherazade. Neither of those scores is particularly revolutionary for a 21st century audience, but the inclusion of The Tears of Nature by Tan Dun should set the entertainment cat among the pigeons. Grammy Award-winning Chinese conductor Muhai Tang will preside over the orchestral proceedings.
Just in case the name of the Chinese composer does not ring too many bells, one can note the soundtracks he created for 2000 blockbuster movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for which Dun won a slew of kudos, including an Oscar, a Grammy and a BAFTA award. He has dozens of symphonic works and concertos to his name, and was also entrusted with writing the official soundtrack to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Needless to say, Zimbalista is excited at the prospect of playing the solo role in the Dun rendition. He says he likes the expansive nature of the composition. “It is a very Chinese work, obviously in terms of the musical nature, with regard to the use of scales, but also in terms of the repetitive nature of the music – everything is played twice,” he explains. “It is very bombastic. There is a full orchestra, with a contrabassoon and a bass clarinet, and horns and a tuba, and 4 percussionists, and tympani and other percussion instruments. The stage will be full to bursting,” he laughs.
Over the years, Zimbalista has performed all over the world, frequently in a solo role. Presumably, sharing the stage, inter alia, with a bunch of other percussionists impacts on his own approach to the score. “Yes, I‘d say so,” he concurs, although adding that the work does feature him in a bona fide starring role too. “In the second movement I have a true solo role. It is like a mini-concerto for marimba. It is totally frontal and transparent. The first and third movements have different kinds of solos, with me playing on my own and also in combination with other instruments, and call and response phrases. You get a party on the stage, a rhythm party,” he chuckles.
With over three decades of globe-trotting creative musical derring-do, both as an instrumentalist and conductor, Zimbalista has taken on a wide range of material, taking in classical, jazz and ethnic scores of various strains. That generous stylistic purview experience, naturally, informs his approach to works from new cultural areas. “That goes without saying,” he notes, references not only himself but his fellow professionals too. “Every musician who is active today has to be able to handle numerous styles. They have to be open, to listen to things, to try different things out. I don’t call myself a jazz musician, or an ethnic musician or an Indian musician, although I have played jazz and I have taken part in productions together with Indian musicians. I have also played rock and contemporary music, and I conduct a lot. But it is all part and parcel of the same thing. The categorization between these things is not right. The net spreads right across the world, and we all have to be multitalented. You know, Israeli composers have to think a little Chinese, and Chinese composers write music a little like Africans.”
Zimbalista has firsthand knowledge of cultural boundary-crossing fellow professionals. “There is an American composer with whom I work a lot called Mark Hagerty. He spends most of his time traveling the world, exploring things. He has an American passport, but he’s not really an American.”
The Tan Dun work should keep the Israeli on his toes. “The work is divided into three movements which each representing a season,” he explains. “In the first movement I play solo tympani from the back of the stage, with other percussion players. It’s like a giant rhythm section,” he laughs.
In fact, the score starts out with a very different type of percussive line, of a more natural ilk. “The concerto actually begins with me banging stones together. I found some pebbles in the Arava, which I think have a lovely tone. They have a range of close to an octave. You can produce different pitches by moving your hand on the stone.” That sounds like a suitably environmentally-friendly, non-industrialized approach to music making. “I will return the pebbles to nature when I finish this project,” says Zimbalista.
The Tears of Nature takes performers and listeners through a range of emotions and sensibilities. “The second movement has a wonderful, moving role for the marimba, using the lower octave, with long quiet sounds. It is like a prayer in a pagoda. You don’t even hear the mallets hitting the marimba.”
Things warm up towards the end. “The third movement is virtuosic and very rhythmic. The whole orchestra becomes a rhythm machine. All of the instrumentalists play the same thing in unison. It is very powerful.”
Unlike the Arabic discipline, Chinese music accommodates harmonies, although it incorporates different scales and modular forms than western classical music. “There is the pentatonic scale, and you have 4 gongs and 8 drums which are all tuned to the same scale, along with the marimba and vibraphone, they are like a whole new keyboard which allows you to move between the instruments, and that allows you to create the melody using all of the instruments together.” That sounds a rich densely packed affair. “That gives you a different sound and that is one of the most challenging things, for us percussionists, to connect everything, and to take two instruments and add them to produce a third sound.”
Zimbalista says he is up for the challenge, and is also looking forward to introducing local audiences to something outside their regular cultural hinterland. “It is a sort of statement of intent. First of all, well done to [orchestra musical director] Dan [Ettinger] who chose the work. He is saying to our audiences, it is great listening to Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Beethoven, but now the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion is offering you something else, totally updated.”
Unlike many contemporary works, Zimbalista says the Tan Dun piece has plenty going for it on an appealing melodic level. “It is very communicative and very relevant to today. Also there is a lot of percussion in it, regardless of me. It is easy to fill auditoria with works based on violins, but I think there is something very positive about bringing a work like this to Israel.”
For tickets and more information: (03) 948-4840 and