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A Roller Coaster Ride with The New Klezmer Quintet

Mishkan Torah Synagogue hosts a special evening of entertainment.

Brian Choper, percussionist and manager of the New Klezmer Quintet, opened their concert at Greenbelt’s Mishkan Torah synagogue pledging that the audience would take a “roller coaster ride.” The ensemble made good on that promise!

This rollercoaster was capable of time travel—with a program that originated in Eastern Europe’s shtetls, crossed the ocean with immigrants, and landed in early twentieth-century New York. It then picked up some 1920s jazz and, before the evening was over, made stops in Appalachia, an Israeli kibbutz, and a 1960s rock festival. Such was the group’s mastery of genres and styles beyond the traditional wedding and bar mitzvah klezmer repertoire.

A rendition of Rolling Stones classic “Satisfaction” melded Chris Huntington’s psychedelic guitar with a klezmer clarinet. Mick and company could take some lessons! Santana’s “Evil Ways” introduced keyboardist Charles Jablow’s electronic sitar simulations, with a klezmer twist.

Alan Oresky’s masterful klezmer fiddling of a bluegrass standard, “Orange Blossom Special,” had the audience rising for a standing ovation. Clarinetist Fred Jacobowitz introduced some original pieces, including one he wrote to celebrate the birth of his son Louie. The other band members kidded him about writing music while driving, to which he responded, “I know that texting while driving is illegal, but no one said anything about composing while driving!”

The band didn’t neglect traditional Yiddish and Israeli folk music. Vocalist Laurie Riggins joined the ensemble for some heart-stoppingly lovely songs, including “Dona Dona,” and “Tumbalalaika.”

Several traditional dance pieces were identified as shers (“scissors” in Yiddish), so named because the folk dance formations that would have traditionally accompanied these tunes involved crossings and turns that imitated a pair of scissors cutting. And the band rendered the familiar “Hava Nagila” like you’ve never heard it before—with psychedelic guitar riffs worthy of Jimi Hendrix!

The evening was fun, lively and upbeat. Many in the audience tapped their feet to familiar tunes and couples swing-danced on the sidelines. For the finale, a large group line-danced in the aisles.

A chance to hear in an intimate setting, such accomplished musicians—who have had formal conservatory training and who have entertained Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and President Barack Obama—is a rare treat. Two band members, Alan Oresky and Brian Choper, have Greenbelt and Mishkan Torah connections. Brian’s father, Jordan Choper, and Alan Oresky’s brother Saul and sister-in-law Phyllis worked to bring the ensemble to Greenbelt and publicize the concert.

But this was not just an ordinary gig. Alan Oresky praised the warm, homey atmosphere of Mishkan Torah, and Brian Choper spoke of wanting to share the music with the larger community. A special evening, indeed!

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