Few can chronicle the changes in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra better than Gabriel Vole, a veteran double bass player.
Vole represents the third generation of his family to perform with the orchestra. His maternal grandfather, the Polish-born violinist Jacob Surowicz, was a co-founder and was followed by Gabriel’s father, Leopold, whose son inherited his love for the double bass. In addition, Gabriel’s mother, Sarah, and uncle Maurice filled in occasionally.
The biggest change, Vole says, is the number of women.
“When I signed up in 1967, there were maybe three or four women in the orchestra,” Vole said. “Now I’d say they make up 40 percent or more of the members.”
Vole and the IPO, led by music director for life Zubin Mehta, are kicking off a five-day concert tour spanning four American cities with a performance at Carnegie Hall here on Oct. 25 before moving on to Palm Springs, Calif.; Las Vegas and Los Angeles on successive nights starting Oct. 28.
Complementing the IPO’s tour will be the release of the film “Orchestra of Exiles,” which documents the struggle to establish the orchestra in 1936 and to rescue German Jewish musicians from Nazi persecution (see review on page 38).
The Carnegie Hall concert will include the New York premiere of “Mechaye Hametim” (Revival of the Dead), a choral symphony by Israeli composer and conductor Noam Sheriff that is dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust and the builders of Israel. Also at the famed venue, Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, 25, an audience favorite for her musicianship and fashion statements, will play in Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor.
In the other venues, Wang will perform in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor. The program for all four concerts will feature Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1.
Over its 76 years, the IPO has undergone many transformations.
Vole noted that the orchestra early on was composed mainly of refugees from Germany and a large Polish contingent, and rounded out by a smattering of Russians, Hungarians, Romanians and native Israelis.
“At that time, the rehearsals, the correspondence, everything was in German,” Vole said in a phone interview with JTA.
That lasted until the 1950s, when an increasing number of native-trained musicians joined. An influx of talented musicians from the Soviet Union came in the 1970s and ‘80s, and they now make up about half of the 100-piece orchestra.
A number of players from North and South America also have entered the ranks, and the main working languages now are Hebrew and English. The latter is mainly to accommodate many of the Russians, who understand English better than Hebrew.
Vole tells the story of Gustavo Dudamel, now the effervescent conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, leading the IPO in 2008 and 2010 and once setting a rehearsal for late Saturday afternoon. Some religiously observant players did not show up until after the end of the Sabbath.
When Dudamel asked about their absence, a violinist gave a one-word explanation: “Shabbos.”
The conductor grew extremely agitated and shouted, “Chavez? What does this have to do with Hugo Chavez?” referring to the president of Dudamel’s native Venezuela.
Vole says playing for the IPO is not purely about playing music “but about solidarity and making music together.”
The love affair between the orchestra and the India-born Mehta is passionate and longstanding. He knows the musicians and their spouses by their first names and will converse in Yiddish with Russian newcomers.
“Zubin’s identification and involvement with the orchestra is complete, and so is his identification with Israel,” Vole said.
The founder of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, a precursor to the IPO, was Bronislaw Huberman, and the documentary “Orchestra of Exiles” is a tribute by filmmaker Josh Aronson to Huberman’s single-minded dedication and perseverance.
A native of Poland, Huberman was a musical child prodigy who, relentlessly driven by his father, became a world-renowned violinist. Disillusioned by World War I, Huberman quit at the height of his fame to broaden his education at the Sorbonne in Paris and became an ardent advocate of a pan-European union.
With the rise of Hitler, and seeing worse to come, he set about forming a world-class orchestra in a largely barren land, far from the coffeehouses and opera houses of Vienna or Budapest.
In 1936, facing a critical shortfall of $80,000 to launch his venture, Huberman enlisted an amateur violinist named Albert Einstein, and together they raised the sum at one benefit dinner in New York.
For the orchestra’s inaugural concert under the great Italian conductor and ardent anti-fascist Arturo Toscanini, 100,000 buyers — in a total Jewish population of 400,000 — vied to buy the 2,000 available tickets.
Among those paying tribute to Huberman, and demonstrating their own virtuosity in the film, are violinists Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman and Joshua Bell.
“Orchestra of Exiles” opens Oct. 26 in New York and Nov. 2 in Los Angeles. The New York and Los Angeles concerts will include fundraising galas featuring receptions with the artists and dinners hosted by the American Friends of the IPO. For information, visit afipo.org/events.