Posted by: Emma Hutchins, Public Affairs Intern
Hobart Earle, an American music director and conductor who has led the Odesa Philharmonic Orchestra to new heights, was awarded the title Narodny Artist Ukrainy (People’s Artist of Ukraine) by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on June 27, 2013. Mr. Earle was kind enough to speak with the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv’s Public Affairs Section about everything from his reaction to the award, his friendship with Ukrainian actor Bohdan Stupka, and proposed architectural improvements of Odesa’s Philharmonic Hall. A more detailed blog post discussing Mr. Earle’s contributions to Ukrainian music and culture can be found here: (insert link).
You were the first and only American to receive the Distinguished Artist of Ukraine award and now, the People’s Artist of Ukraine. How did you feel when you learned you were going to receive the award, especially considering your unique status as a foreigner?
I was in Moscow, conducting recordings with the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia (Svetlanov Symphony) in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, when I received an email from a friend in Kyiv congratulating me on the award. My first thought was: “Why is he poking fun at me?” However, within half an hour, my staff had checked the website of the President of Ukraine, and confirmed it was true. I was amazed. Next day in Moscow, there was an unforgettable moment, when the orchestra gave me thunderous applause and played me a so-called “touche” on the stage of the Great Hall of the Conservatory after their inspector announced my new title to them. Of course, the title is indeed quite an honor. While in Moscow, my thoughts turned to my late friend, the eminent Ukrainian actor Bohdan Stupka. Six months ago, the last time I was in Moscow to conduct, I was accommodated in the room where he always stayed at the Ukrainian Cultural Institute (the room now bears a memorial plaque to Bohdan Stupka). Bohdan used to attend my concerts with the Odesa Philharmonic in Kyiv regularly during the 1990s, and invariably came backstage with his young grandson. Later, during his stint as Minister of Culture (end of the 1990s), he once said to me: ‘Hobart, you should be “Narodny Artist”’ and began to investigate the idea, only to be told the law stated a minimum of 10 years had to lapse between ‘Zasluzhyny’ and ‘Narodny’. So, I remembered his words and was thinking Bohdan would be pleased to see this title bestowed upon me, after so many years.
Why were you first attracted to working in Ukraine, and what has made you remain here for so long?
That’s a question I’m asked again and again. And it’s been written up often (including ‘Reader’s Digest’ in 1996: see http://www.odessaphilharmonic.org/press.php?news=50). My ‘fate’ so to speak, has a lot to do with geography, and Vienna is a big part of the reason I ended up coming to Ukraine. Had I not been in Vienna during the end of the 1980s, it’s safe to say I would’ve probably not traveled further east. Indeed, I first met Bohdan Stupka in Vienna way back in 1991, during a guest performance he gave with the Franko Theater at the Wiener Volkstheater. Funnily enough, that night was the first time I ever heard Ukrainian spoken. As I began to realize I couldn’t understand every third or fourth word, it dawned upon me that what I was hearing was not Russian. As to what made me stay in Odesa so long, well, that’s also ‘fate’, although I should add, we conductors travel a lot. I conduct in many different countries each year.
What has been your favorite piece to perform in Ukraine? How do you decide which compositions you are going to conduct?
I have conducted in many different halls and theaters throughout Ukraine over the years — and as far as theaters go, the opera houses in Kyiv, Odesa and Lviv are all special. However, there’s no question Philharmonic Hall in Odesa is my favorite concert hall. There’s also no doubt it’s the best concert hall for symphony orchestras in the country. The sad thing is, the hall’s potential is still not realized, as many of the recommendations made by eminent acoustician Russell Johnson in his report on the hall ( http://www.odessaphilharmonic.org/pages.php?page=hallreport) have yet to be implemented. But the happy truth is, once they’re all done, there’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the great man’s words, “Odesa’s Philharmonic Hall can rival the great concert halls of Europe,” will be right on the mark.
As to repertoire, the OPO performs a wide range of compositions by all sorts of composers each season. We bring a very diverse offering. We recently played two world premieres on tour in Kyiv in May 2013, including a new “Double Concerto” for trumpet and trombone by Austrian composer Reinhard Suess, with friends of mine from student days in Vienna – Principal Trombone of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Dietmar Kueblboeck, and his brother Rainer, Principal Trumpet of the Vienna Symphony. I’d say my own planning is a combination of re-visiting pieces I’ve conducted in the past, and performing compositions for the first time. And, as an added plus, it’s always nice to perform with friends who you don’t necessarily get to see every year.
What role do you think music and the arts play in developing Ukraine?
No question the role is big. Ukraine is a country with a deep tradition in the arts. We’d all like to hope this role will continue to grow. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t say we see a general trend toward ‘popular culture’ on the rise, a trend which was not present so much in the past. There’s no doubt that as time goes by, more and more needs to be done, since as the pace of life picks up, traditional values risk being left behind.
How do you plan on building upon your success at the Odesa Philharmonic Orchestra in the future?
We’ve built a loyal audience in Odesa over the years, and have a number of annual events that are widely followed, locally. We have a number of ideas ‘up our sleeve’ for the future, including various festivals, which the city is well-suited to host. Time will tell. A lot of the chances for future growth depend on the hall’s acoustic potential – and potential as a historic architectural monument – being properly realized. As to my own guest conducting, I plan to continue expanding this aspect of my artistic life.