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Review: Klezmatics at Walt Disney Concert Hall

December 21, 2011 |  9:53 pm

The Klezmatics' Hanukkah music show at Disney Hall is a refreshing change-up from Christmas carols this holiday season.

The bestselling album in the nation right now is Michael Bublé's "Christmas," and at last count there were eight collections of Christmas music in the Top 30 of the national album sales chart. Christmas music is inescapable, whether it's being piped in at the mall, at the coffee shop, or via a co-worker's cellphone ring tone.

All of which made the Klezmatics' presentation of Hanukkah music on Monday at Walt Disney Concert Hall a refreshing reminder that the holidays aren't exclusively dedicated to Christmas.

During a rich, vibrant two-hour concert the day before Hanukkah's eight-day observance began, the veteran New York-based band dug deep into a trove of songs and styles that originated long ago among Jews living in Eastern Europe and played to a near-capacity crowd.

The sextet masterfully (and seemingly effortlessly) expressed the celebratory and sentimental feelings that are fundamental facets of traditional klezmer music. Such feelings aren't limited to any one culture, of course, and the Klezmatics succeeded in making the music feel universal while still meeting the expectations of those familiar with that genre.

Under an expanse of festive multi-pointed silver stars suspended from the Disney Hall ceiling, founding members Lorin Sklamberg and Frank London walked onstage with longtime bandmates Lisa Gutkin, Matt Darriau, Paul Morrissett and Richie Barshay and with no introduction began playing "Zol shoyn kumen di geule." This characteristically minor-key klezmer tune is built on an invigorating polyrhythmic beat in which a waltz pulse coexisted magically with a four-beat-per-measure counter rhythm as trumpet, alto sax, fiddle, accordion, bass and drums came together -- and then apart -- in various combinations of tonal colors.

Sklamberg, who was working at New York's YIVO Institute for Jewish Research a quarter century ago when he met London, handles most of the lead vocals. Although klezmer music originally was strictly instrumental, the Klezmatics included a number of songs with lyrics -- some in Yiddish, some in English -- for which Sklamberg employed a powerfully pure tenor with a hint of grit at the edges.

A generous chunk of the set was given to songs written by American folk music titan Woody Guthrie, and recorded by the Klezmatics on their 2006 Grammy-winning album "Wonder Wheel" and its holiday-centric companion "Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah." The sometimes awkward but sincere songs Guthrie created out of his family connection to Jewish life -- his mother-in-law was American Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt -- became a source of humor as London asked whether anyone in the crowd had a "tree" at home like the one Guthrie exhorted people to dance around in "Hanukkah Tree." When no one raised a hand, London nodded knowingly: "Enough said."

Because each of the band members has extensive credits in other branches of ethnic music as well as jazz and folk, they were well equipped to highlight connections among the sounds of klezmer music and, by turns, Irish folk, Moorish-influenced music of Spain, Louisiana zydeco, traditional New Orleans jazz and even the mariachi music of Mexico thanks in part to the wide, brassy vibrato London brought to his trumpet playing.

The Disney Hall acoustic left Sklamberg sounding for a time as though he were straining to be heard in a packed high school gymnasium, and early on also diminished his accordion and Darriau's sax in the mix. But as the show progressed, a better sonic balance emerged, allowing the varied musical combinations to steep.

Gutkin focused mostly on violin, but took a hauntingly emotional lead vocal on "Gonna Get Through This World" that echoed African American gospel music. Sklamberg moved from accordion to piano to guitar, London shifted from trumpet to an electric keyboard (occasionally handling both at the same time), Darriau alternated among clarinet, sax and the recorder-flute-like kaval, and Morrissett set aside his bass now and then and tapped elegantly on the dulcimer-like tsimbl.

Drummer Barshay provided a wealth of energetic support, never losing his nimble way even at the sometimes breakneck paces called by London or Sklamberg. He turned the dreaded drum solo segment into an engaging rhythmic call-and-response exercise with the crowd.

They even let all the instruments drop away on a couple of songs to showcase ebullient six-part vocal harmonies not far removed from American country gospel tradition. It was enough to make even a skeptic a believer in Walt's credo that it's a small world after all


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-- Randy Lewis

Photos: Top - Matt Darrian, left, and Frank London throw Woody Guthrie tunes into the mix. Bottom - The Klezmatics sextet smoothly switch among different instruments to perform klezmer music on Monday at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times