The Central Synagogue London has announced a series of classical music concerts arranged around the theme of  Jewish cultural identity and is inviting a broader audience to attend. In a break with tradition the concerts starting in February will be the first time the Synagogue has promoted itself as a music venue to a non-Jewish audience.

Inside of synagogue.
Central Synagogue London in Great Portland Street is hosting an international concerts series.

“We are running an international concerts series at the Synagogue featuring well known musicians, which is open to the wider community,” says Raquel Amit of the Central Synagogue.

The inaugural season of the International Concerts Series boasts some of the world’s finest musicians but it is distinct because the musicians will explore the Jewish cultural contribution to the world, and the world’s cultural contribution to Jewish identity, through music in one of London’s most iconic Jewish buildings.

The Central Synagogue has been in Great Portland Street in one form or another for more than 155 years. Today’s Synagogue was rebuilt and reconsecrated in 1958, after the original building was destroyed in a bombing raid on 10 May 1941.

The history of the Central Synagogue is an integral part of the history of Anglo-Jewry. It has played an important part in the life and activities of the Jewish Community here in London and though always warmly welcoming of guests and visitors this is the first time the Synagogue has publicised itself as a concert venue for the wider local community too.

Three concerts are scheduled for the first half of 2015.

“You don’t have to be Jewish” Mark Bebbington, piano, 4 February 2015.

English pianist Mark Bebbington explores little-known Jewish influences in music. There are composers, including Debussy and Arthur Bliss, who weren’t Jewish but, though many may not know it, were influenced by Jews. Both had Jewish wives and the pieces of theirs that Bebbington will play in this concert — Bliss’s Masks and Debussy’s Preludes — weave Jewish threads.

Then there are Jewish composers whose fame has dimmed over the years — the Italian master, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco with his blend of Neopolitan Jewishness, and Harriet Cohen, the remarkable woman who inspired a generation of fellow composers in England, from Elgar and Vaughan Williams to her lover Sir Arnold Bax. Bebbington will also turn to a Jewish composer and play selections from George Gershwin.

“Exiles Cafe” Lara Downes, piano. 25 March 2015.

Little-known in this country, in her native US Lara Downes is seen as a trailblazer — merging music and speech to reinvent the solo piano recital. Exiles Café, a project that came out of her recent, acclaimed album for Steinway Records, is performed here in London for the first time. That most Jewish of themes — exile — is explored from the unusual viewpoint of the cafes and bars where composers in exile would meet and be cheered by fellow wanderers. But the Exiles Café is also a place of the mind, where exiles of different eras meet and collide and share experiences, through their music. Central Synagogue’s Wolfson Hall will be transformed into a café for the evening, with the piano in its centre amidst the tables. Downes will play host to the music of Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Kurt Weill, Korngold, Chopin, Martinu and Milhaud. And the evening’s climax is the spiritual acceptance of a new life in the New World, with a performance of George Gershwin’s love letter to America, Rhapsody In Blue.

“Three Worlds” Avi Avital, mandolin, Ray Chen, violin. 27 May 2015.

In a major musical event, two young musicians come together for the European debut of their exciting new partnership. “Three Worlds” (working title) sees Israeli mandolin player Avi Avital (who records for DG) and Chinese-American violinist Ray Chen (a Sony artist) explore three areas that have greatly influenced string-playing traditions — the music of Bach, Chinese folk music and Jewish klezmer.

Tickets for each concert are £20 and obtainable by emailing or by telephoning 020 7580 1355. This Concert series is presented by Central Synagogue with Inverne Price Music Consultancy. The Jewish Chronicle is a media partner for the series. Central Synagogue, 36-40 Hallam Street, London W1W 6NW.