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Down, Under, and Out of the Shadows

August 5-14, 2017

The fourth Out of the Shadows festival took place in Sydney in early August, the second week of second semester. Over three hundred musicians, actors and academics came together to present research work from Performing the Jewish Archive. Two exciting local cross-faculty collaborations involved Associate Professor Ian Maxwell (Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, SLAM) and Dr Avril Alba (Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies, SLC). Ian directed one of the cabarets in the festival, Prince Bettliegend, while Avril was co-convenor for an international symposium held at the Sydney Jewish Museum, Performance, Empathy, Trauma and the Archive.

Performance of Bertold Brecht’s and Kurt Weil’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ at the Vebrugghen Hall. © 2017 University of Sydney. Photograph by David Goldman.

Performances were exceptionally well attended, with over 2,100 people viewing 15 events, including four free concert presentations and two free guest lectures by exceptional international academics.  Local composers from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music were commissioned and represented throughout: arrangements for chamber orchestra (Aidan Rosa and Ian Whitney), settings of poetry by Nelly Sachs for large choir (Katrina Kovacs and Victoria Pham), and original compositions based on Jewish refugee material with which the composers themselves were working (Daniel Biederman and Solomon Frank).


Geoff Sirmai and Doron Chester in the ‘Merchants of Helsinki’. © 2017 University of Sydney. Photograph by David Goldman.

Programs represented Jewish artists who had sought refuge in Australia. A significant range of compositional styles were represented through the works of Werner Baer, Boas Bischofswerder, George Dreyfus, Marcel Lorber, George Pikler, Georg Tintner, and Walter Wurzburger. The Festival was especially pleased to perform George Dreyfus’s Trio in the presence of the composer. We also heard personal reminiscences from the pianist Rachel Valler OAM, and the contralto Lauris Elms AM OBE, both of whom had working relationships with Jewish refugee composers. 

Katia Molino and Yana Taylor ‘in Prince Bettliegend’. © 2017 University of Sydney. Photograph by David Goldman.

The quality of performance across the festival was extraordinary.  Rave reviews were given for the opening night orchestral and dance event (conducted by Roger Benedict) and the exceptional Prince Bettliegend. Audiences were particularly appreciative of the local talents of Geoff Sirmai and Joanna Weinberg in The Merchants of Helsinki. Cabarets were musically directed by Dr Kevin Hunt and an ensemble from the Sydney Conservatorium Jazz Unit, with expert guidance in scripting and music from Simo Muir (Merchants of Helsinki) and dramaturgy from Lisa Peschel (Prince Bettliegend).

Two brilliant international guests gave keynote speeches as part of the festival, addressing the place of cultural expression in the lives of Jewish refugees.  Dr Anna Shternshis’s talk, sponsored by the School of Languages and Cultures (SLC) and the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS), discussed songs created by Yiddish speaking Jews in the Ukraine during World War II, only rediscovered in the late 1990s.  Dr Brigid Cohen’s talk, sponsored by the Sydney Conservatorium’s Alfred Hook Lecture Series, explored the repertories created by refugee Jewish artists in flight or in the camps, bringing them into dialogue with crucial philosophers of the period (especially Hannah Arendt) who were addressing questions of responsibility, reality, facticity and truth-telling in the wake of the Holocaust.  The two international guests moderated sessions for a special symposium, Performance, Empathy, Trauma and the Archive, held at the Sydney Jewish Museum in the final two days of the festival.  Over twenty participants explored questions such as the role of historical authenticity in creative production, especially pertinent given the long-standing debates about the limits of representation that surround artwork associated with the Holocaust. They also addressed whether and how the contemporary emphasis on empathy as a desired outcome of engagement with difficult histories and artworks might itself be ethically problematic. Their contributions engendered far-reaching and stimulating discussions and are currently being prepared for publication.

By Dr Joseph Toltz

Research Fellow, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, The University of Sydney

Curator, Out of the Shadows: rediscovering Jewish Music and Theatre (Sydney, August 2017)

Co-Convenor, Performance, Empathy, Trauma and the Archive, 13-14 August, 2017

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