There will be no dining table but Henri Oppenheim is bringing alive memories of his bubbe’s cooking with Un Festin Klezmer.
The 90-minute concert with narration opens with a performance at Victoria Hall in Westmount on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. and tours Montreal’s Maisons de la culture before closing its run in Côte St-Luc at the Harold Greenspon Auditorium on May 14.
“It’s called a Klezmer Feast because it’s a lot about food and how my grandmother used to cook all the Jewish Polish dishes like krupnik (barley soup) and klops, meatloaf with a hard-boiled egg inside. I play with the memories of smells and taste,” says Oppenheim.
To the storyline of a family dinner, he’ll connect traditional klezmer tunes, Yiddish favourites like “Lo mir sich iberbetn,” and the partisan anthem “Zog nit keyn mol.”
Also on the program are his original klezmer compositions, some of them from his Tur Malka album (listen at magillah.com) composed to the poetry of Montreal Yiddish writers like Rochl Korn and Melech Ravitch.
Oppenheim’s narrative is based on a short story he wrote two years ago, recalling the warmth and satiety he felt at the age of 10 at a meal lovingly cooked by his bubbe.
“But it’s a special dinner party because instead of only the core family, there are uncles, aunts, great-uncles, the ganse mishpachah around the table and it’s crazy. They tell stories, they talk about their origins and the discussions are at once very Jewish and very universal.
“But there’s a catch: 80 per cent of those people are invented because the Nazis made this party impossible. My family is tiny. The Nazis killed everybody.”
Oppenheim’s Polish parents survived the war in Kazakhstan, relocating to Paris in 1949 where the musician was born and grew up with his older sister until he made the move to Montreal as an adult.
He didn’t hear much Yiddish as a child but he bears a void within that he feels can only be filled by the mama loshen.
Oppenheim gave up his field of mathematics research to go into music at McGill University. In 2002, following his degree in composition and orchestration, he founded the klezmer ensemble Kleztory.
He left them a decade later to launch Magillah. It was then that he added Yiddish vocals to the instrumentals. His visceral attraction to Yiddish strengthens as the years go by.
“It’s the beauty of the language and it carries so much emotion and memories, a whole approach to life. I feel very close to that. Rivka Augenfeld has always been my Yiddish coach. For this show, I also have Jean-Paul Schneider directing my narration and movement around the stage while the band plays. And I’ll be on accordion and guitar,” says Oppenheim who has concertized klezmer with I Musici and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
Magillah is a fluid group with different musicians coming on for different concerts. This time, Thomas Beard, principal cellist of the Agora Symphony Orchestra, clarinetist Victor Alibert, and Michael Cotnoir on the Roma-Gypsy guitar, join Oppenheim.
“I probably have some of the best musicians I ever had, for this tour,” says Oppenheim. “I always like my concerts to tell a story in music but this is my first attempt to tell a musical tale. I want this story to bring people with me musically but also with feeling and impressions.”
The narration, all 15 pages of it that Oppenheim is committing to memory, was initially written in his native French but Oppenheim hopes to make it bilingual. The music needs no translation.
Tickets to the concerts are free, available in advance at the venues and through Eventbrite.ca.