On Israel Philharmonic’s whirlwind U.S. tour, a N.Y. debut for Israeli’s symphony

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 in New York on Oct. 25 before moving on to Palm Springs, Calif., Las Vegas and Disney Hall in 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.

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 comprised 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 Sabbath.

When Dudamel asked about their absence, a violinist gave a one-word explanation: “Shabbes.”

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 long standing. 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 yet 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 http://www.afipo.org/events.

Joshua Bloom: His voice is more than the sum of his parts

The old theater saying that there are no small parts, only small actors, can also be said for opera. Just ask Australian bass Joshua Bloom, who was in town last month to begin rehearsals as Masetto for the Los Angeles Opera production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” The opera’s seven performances run Sept. 22 through Oct. 14 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Masetto marks Bloom’s L.A. Opera debut. “Masetto is a small role, but a good one because you can certainly make an impression,” Bloom said during a break in rehearsal. “There are some roles where nobody remembers you, but Masetto has enough meat to it — it’s great to debut with in a major house.”

The role has already earned him accolades at other major opera houses, including last year at the Metropolitan Opera. In The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini praised his peasant Masetto as “stalwart,” adding that his “hearty bass” made for an “endearing performance.”

Audiences may recall Bloom from his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut last year as Algernon in a striking concert version of Gerald Barry’s unpredictable operatic take on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Though primarily a bass, Bloom’s flexible range comfortably negotiated this quirky comic baritone part.

Bloom’s lyric, rather than dramatic, voice type has a substance and weight that projects well, especially in the Handel, Mozart and Rossini repertory.

“A lot of the roles for my voice type are smaller, but they’re significant,” Bloom said. “Masetto is the only one who stands up to Giovanni in any meaningful way, and that makes him interesting in a cast of people who are often manipulated by Giovanni without any recourse.”

Masetto is just one of the comprimario, or supporting parts, in Bloom’s repertory. In August, he played Leporello, the Don’s servant, at a festival in Tallinn, Estonia. And when Bloom returns to L.A. Opera in May 2013 for a six-performance run of Puccini’s “Tosca” (May 18 through June 8 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), he will be playing Angelotti.

“Angelotti is another small part, but actually it’s really pivotal,” Bloom said, “and possibly my favorite small role to do. You have some really good music, and it’s very dramatic.”

L.A. Opera music director James Conlon observed in an e-mail that the late tenor Charles Anthony often made his greatest impact in smaller parts. A New York Times critic, reviewing his Met debut in 1954, said Anthony even made bit parts, like the Simpleton in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” unforgettable.

“Angelotti is very, very important,” Conlon said. “A great deal of the first act of ‘Tosca’ absolutely depends on a strongly sung and defined Angelotti as a counterweight to the other characters.”

Conlon added that Angelotti’s escape from prison sets “Tosca’s” entire drama in motion, which ends —  (spoiler alert!) — in the violent death of the opera’s four most prominent characters.

Bloom has sung larger parts, including the title character in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” and Nick Shadow (the Devil) in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” Next year, he is scheduled to sing the bass role in Gerald Barry’s opera “The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit.” It’s part of a double bill with Handel’s “The Triumph of Time and Truth” at a festival in Germany.

“I play Time in both shows,” Bloom said. “The role has very low notes, but also very high. Gerald likes to explore the extremes of people’s ranges, so there’s not a huge difference between his baritone and bass roles. He writes a lot of falsetto for basses as well.”

Bloom, 38, grew up in Melbourne with musician parents who exposed him to all sorts of music from a very young age. But they encouraged him to go to law school. 

“Music wasn’t something I ever thought of doing as a profession,” Bloom said. “Music, to my parents, was not a good career choice. I think they wanted me to get a real job.”

Bloom, whose father is Jewish, went to Anglican schools on a music scholarship as a cellist and double bass player. “Technically, I’m not really Jewish,” Bloom said. “My parents are firm atheists, so I was never particularly religious. I went to Jewish kindergarten. That was as far as it went. Nonetheless, obviously having a Jewish father, and my name being as it is, well, there you go.” 

Bloom majored in history at the University of Melbourne, focusing on Hitler’s Germany, Holocaust history and Russia under Stalin. He also started acting in fringe theater, “doing the odd musical.” 

“I wanted to be an actor,” Bloom said, but people who heard him sing recommended he take voice lessons. “I kind of fell into opera. It wasn’t something I was desperate to do from a young age.”

Bloom left Melbourne for New York when he was 26 and is now based in San Francisco. Since his father was originally from Chicago, Bloom said he’s never had a problem working in the United States, which became necessary for him to cultivate an interesting career.

“Australia is very isolated geographically, and the arts scene is tricky,” Bloom said. “If you want to be a full-time, professional opera singer, there’s really only one company that is available — Opera Australia.”

Over the years, Bloom has been invited back regularly to Opera Australia, but he doesn’t regret leaving. “It’s a great country,” he said, “but for opera singers, it’s a difficult environment.”

Bloom, who is on the road for most of the year, said his parents are “very proud” of his thriving singing career. But, he added, living out of suitcase gets old quickly. And there’s no time for relationships outside the work.

“I would have to establish something quickly and then manage the long-distance thing, which is difficult at the best of times,” Bloom said, adding that most of the people he meets are in the business.

Though he continues to enjoy the variety of small and large lyric roles he’s offered, Bloom said he hopes in the next decade to venture into heftier emotional terrain. One of his dream roles is King Philip in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” 

“He’s such a complex and profound character,” Bloom said. “There’s a lot of pathos involved, and the music is extraordinary. Although I’ve never played him, Don Giovanni is also a role where, depending on your stage of life, you have a different insight into the character. Those roles have multiple layers, to be explored over a lifetime.”

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