January 24, 2019

Israeli Philharmonic’s storied history

The storied Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, founded as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra 12 years before the rebirth of the Jewish state, and its music-director-for-life Zubin Mehta, will join in concert on Oct. 30 at Disney Hall.

The event marks the final stop in a five-day national tour, with performances in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Palm Desert, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

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. 

From the IPO’s beginnings, it has attracted the world’s greatest conductors, starting with Arturo Toscanini, who gave the fledgling orchestra his imprimatur by leading the inaugural concert in Tel Aviv.

More recently, in 2008 and 2010, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s much loved conductor Gustavo Dudamel has wielded the baton. In a phone interview, Gabriel Vole, a veteran IPO member, told an anecdote about Dudamel’s encounter with Jewish tradition that is worth repeating.

Dudamel set a rehearsal for late Saturday afternoon, but some religiously observant players did not show up until after the end of Shabbat. When Dudamel asked about their absence, a violinist gave a one-word explanation, “Shabbes.”

At this, the conductor grew extremely agitated and shouted, “Chavez? What does this have to do with Hugo Chavez?” (He was referring, of course, to the president of Dudamel’s native Venezuela.)

The IPO program for its Oct. 30 performance consists of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, flanked by Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. Soloist for the Chopin concerto will be 25-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, a crowd favorite as much for her musicianship as for her risqué fashion statements.

Over its 76-year lifespan, the IPO has undergone many transformations, and no one is a better chronicler of these than double bass player Vole, who represents the third generation in his family to perform with the orchestra.

His maternal grandfather, Polish-born violinist Jacob Surowicz, was a co-founder of the orchestra, followed by Gabriel’s father, Leo Vole, whose son inherited his love for the double bass. In addition, Gabriel’s mother, Sarah, and uncle Maurice filled in occasionally.

At its beginning, the orchestra was made up mainly of refugees from Germany and a large Polish contingent, rounded out by a smattering of Russians, Hungarians, Romanians and native-born sabras, Vole said.

“At that time,” he added, “the rehearsals, the correspondence, everything was in German.”

That lasted until the 1950s, when an increasing number of native-trained musicians joined, and again with the influx of talented musicians from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s, who now make up about half of the 100-piece orchestra.

A number of players from North and South America have also 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.

But the biggest change is in 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.”

Playing for the IPO is usually a lifelong commitment. “It’s not simply about playing music, but about solidarity and making music together,” Vole said.

The love affair between the IPO and India-born conductor Zubin Mehta is passionate and long-standing. He knows all musicians by their first names, as well as those of their spouses, 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, later the IPO, was Bronislaw Huberman, and the documentary “Orchestra of Exiles” is a tribute by filmmaker Josh Aronson to the single-minded dedication and perseverance of the man.

A native of Poland, Huberman was a musical child prodigy, relentlessly driven by his father and who 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 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 coffee 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 Toscanini, 100,000 eager buyers, out of 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.

The Oct. 30 concert also will include a fundraising gala, featuring a pre-concert supper on the Disney Hall rooftop garden and a post-concert champagne and dessert reception with the artists, sponsored by the West Coast Friends of the IPO’s Chairmen’s Council.

The group is headed by Marilyn Ziering, who said that more than 60 individual and family members raise, on an average, $1 million a year and occasionally accompany the orchestra on its European tours.

“I think the IPO is Israel’s best cultural ambassador,” she said. “When the orchestra plays, people open their minds to an Israel that’s different from the daily headlines.”

The Oct. 30 concert starts at 8 p.m. at Disney Hall. For ticket information, call (323) 850-2000 or visit www.laphil.com/tickets.

For participation in the benefit gala, contact Danielle Ames Spivak at (310) 445-8406, or e-mail Dames@AFIPO.org.