By Libby Clark
On 27 June the PtJA team made their way down to the British Library in London for a day of events entitled ‘Russian Revolution: Unearthing a Jewish History’. Linking directly with the ‘Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths’ exhibition currently in situ at the British Library and curated in collaboration with colleagues at the British Library and the Royal Northern College of Music, a suite of events took place throughout the day exploring the impact of the Russian Revolution upon Jews in the Russian Empire.
The afternoon kicked off with a keynote address by Professor Michael Berkowitz on Jews and the Revolution entitled Anarchism, Jews — and photography? Opposition and alternatives to Bolshevism. Speaking to a capacity crowd Michael delivered a rousing and informative talk. He was then joined by PtJA team members Stephen Muir, Simo Muir and Lisa Peschel, for a lively Q&A session. Audience members were particularly fascinated with the archival work undertaken by the team in Helsinki, Prague and Cape Town and its sometimes surprising links with Russian Jews and the revolution. The role of Jewish photographers in chronicling these events, and sometimes stimulating further creative activity, was also a topic of interest.
The second part of the day, titled ‘Strains of Revolution – Part 1’, saw members of the Clothworkers Consort of Leeds www.ccl.leeds.ac.uk performing a programme entitled ‘Songs of brotherhood and strife’ in the British Library Entrance Hall. The programme drew upon the rich heritage of Jewish folk and choral music, drawing attention to the struggles, tragedies, internal conflicts, and deep comradeship experienced by Jews in the Russian Empire, before, during, and long after the Revolution itself. As a member of CCL, I was lucky enough to be amongst those signing, along with Stephen Muir. The Entrance Hall was certainly a wonderful space to sing in. One things that struck me, was that by performing this repertoire in a public space that remained open for business as usual, we were reaching a far greater and more varied audience than we might otherwise have done in a traditional concert hall. Whilst we had a core audience of around 70 who sat and listened to the performance in its entirety, I would estimate that at least 100 other people heard the performance in part. Whilst singing, I saw people stop and listen to one or two pieces before moving on, members of the public filming us on their phones whilst going up and down the escalators and library staff appearing on the upper balconies to see what all the noise was about! Having British Library staff on hand throughout our performance to hand out programmes and explain what we were doing to interested members of the public was also tremendously helpful.
The final section of the day, ‘Strains of Revolution – Part 2’, saw a series of new compositions written and performed by students from the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) within the British Library’s main PACCAR exhibition gallery. These works were created specifically for the exhibition and its space and gave voice to the Jewish stories that form part of the Revolution story. Small ensembles were positioned amongst the exhibits and as members of the public wandered around the exhibition they were treated to a rolling programme of mini performances throughout the evening. I certainly found these performances extremely effective and felt they really added an extra dimension to the exhibits on display.
Alongside all these events, the PtJA exhibition http://ptja.leeds.ac.uk/research/ptja-project-exhibition/ was on display in the Entrance Hall throughout the day and received some excellent exposure as a result. Following our summer festivals in Sydney and Cape Town, I would love to see the exhibition displayed somewhere for a period of weeks or months so that it can be viewed and enjoyed by as many people as possible. Please do get in touch with me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you know of anywhere that might be interested in housing the exhibition for a limited period of time.
It goes without saying that an event like this couldn’t happen without strong partnership working, and in this we were incredibly fortunate to work with excellent teams at the British Library and the RNCM. Planning began back in December 2016 and all those involved have been working toward delivering the final result ever since. The British Library, to the knowledge of their staff involved in this event, have never staged a performance within the exhibition gallery, so this element of the day alone came with certain challenges and was a learning curve for us all. As the day drew to a close we were all delighted with how things had gone and excited about the potential for events of this kind in the future. A successful venture all round.
To see video recordings of these events click here