In May, thousands of people, including the Prince of Wales, descended on the Royal Albert Hall for the “Israel at 70” celebration. Jewish TV personalities hosted the event, which was filled with music, dance and art, with Ethiopian Israeli singers, an Israeli contemporary dance company and an Israeli classical string quartet.
London is blessed with countless concert spaces, but it’s no coincidence the evening took place at the Royal Albert Hall. The magnificent concert hall dates back to the 18th century, and has long had a Jewish connection, making it the perfect place for this momentous celebration.
The centuries of history of the Royal Albert Hall have been filled with Jewish tales, whether musical, charitable or literary. For example, the first physicist to sell out the Royal Albert Hall was Professor Albert Einstein in 1933, who was on his way through the UK after fleeing Germany owing to anti-Jewish laws. He was the principal speaker at the Meeting to Raise Funds for the Refugee Assistance Committee, which raised $500,000.
Einstein spoke of his escape from Nazi Germany thanks to the committee and of how he realised the Nazis couldn’t be defeated other than by war. As the Second World War began, the Hall continued its fundraising efforts, with concerts from 1940 to raise money for those affected. Personalities including Laurence Olivier, Vera Lynn and George Formby performed, while Sir Winston Churchill rallied the audience in 1944.
In the 1950s, jazz was all the rage, with stars from Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson to Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan performing at the Hall, singing show tunes and jazz hits written by Jewish composers. In 1965, Jewish musician Bob Dylan sang hits including Mr Tambourine Man. He returned to the stage in 1966 and 2013.
The International Poetry Incarnation took place in 1965 at the hall, featuring Allen Ginsberg, during which the smell of cannabis filled the air.
In the 1970s, the Hall was home to the Filmharmonic concerts, which raised money for The Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund. Top film composers conducted their own work, including Oscar-winning American Jewish composer Elmer Bernstein, who was behind the scores in movies including The Great Escape.
The year 1989 was also a bumper one for celebrating Jewish talent. In April, it held the five-night Ultimate Event, in which Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr sang their greatest hits, then performed together.
The Classical Spectacular Concerts was started that year by London-born Jewish impresario and promoter Raymond Gubbay. Musical performances included light shows, classical music and dancers and they remain a regular event.
More recently, there have been musical concerts with Jewish influences such as Ilan Volkov and Idina Menzel taking to the stage in front of admiring crowds. This month, the Hall will host its annual performance of Handel’s Messiah in collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia Chorus, as well as vocal stars and 30-year-old Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.
There will also be three live Whose Line Is It Anyway? shows in honour of the improvisational comedy’s 30th birthday, which was dreamt up by Jewish producer and writer Dan Patterson.
The Royal Albert Hall holds events with Jewish influences, composers and performances each year, so there’s no need to wait for Israel’s 80th before visiting to get a taste of the continuing Jewish connection.