An American Folk Band in Ukraine: An interview with Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards

Posted by: Lesia Trachuk, Public Affairs Section, U.S. Embassy Kyiv

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Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016
Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016

Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards, an American folk music band based in Boston, Massachusetts, toured Ukraine March 1-6, with concerts in Kharkiv and Kyiv. During their stay in Ukraine, the group also offered workshops, master classes, and presentations on what draws them to traditional American music.

Band leader Laura Cortese shared her thoughts and impressions about the group’s Ukrainian tour with the U.S. Embassy.

How did you decide to tour Ukraine? 

We are on a multi-country tour arranged through the State Department’s American Music Abroad program.  American Music Abroad has been sending American musicians all over the world for many years.  It’s a really competitive program.  First, there’s an open audition process.  This year, over 400 bands applied.  A small number of those are selected for live auditions, and 10 bands are chosen to participate.  American Music Abroad works with Embassies all over the world to decide which groups tour where, depending on what they think would appeal to local audiences.  On this trip, we have already been to Estonia and Greece.  This week, we’re here in Ukraine, and then we are going to Montenegro.

Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016
Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016

What do you think of the Ukrainians you’ve met so far? 

We had an incredible night in Kharkiv last night.  [Note: The group played at Fabrika, and the place was packed.]  I think that was the best audience we’ve had so far this tour.  From the very first song, they were clapping along. I think the audience was maybe 70 % college age students, and I think that has a lot to do with why they were so receptive and responsive, but really everyone in the audience were with us, they sang along. There was even one guy who got up when we said — Hey, who’s gonna dance?  He was a beautiful dancer. That was amazing.

Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016
Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016

We did a masterclass and a press conference at the National Academy of Arts in Kharkiv.  What was exciting about that was that there were a lot of questions about music education in the States.  We had a chance to explain that every place is different, every state is different, every city is different, and every individual experience is different.  People also wanted to know what it’s like to be an independent musician, making a living as an entrepreneur. We also talked about the roots of the Appalachian Mountains music that we play. It’s a mix of 17th century Scottish fiddle music and African music, both traditions coming together in the United States.

And we also got to meet an instructor who’s a balalaika player.  We got to collaborate and play together, and it was really cool. He knew the bluegrass style and it was really fun.

Can you describe your music in three words?

Indie, Chamber, Folk.

Do you know any Ukrainian musicians, composers, or songs?  Do you have any favorites? 

Before we came to Ukraine, we didn’t know much at all.  As we were getting ready to come, we were listening to music online, and we heard Chervona Ruta. It’s a fun, upbeat song, and there are lots of different versions.  We haven’t learned it yet, but it’s been stuck in our heads ever since.


Interview with Hobart Earle, the First American and Newest People’s Artist of Ukraine

Posted by:  Emma Hutchins, Public Affairs Intern 

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Hobart Earle, an American music director and conductor
Hobart Earle, an American music director and conductor

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 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 ( 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.

Standing Ovation: American Musical Conductor Hobart Earle Emerges as People’s Artist of Ukraine

Posted by: Emma Hutchins, Public Affairs Intern

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Since 1922, the “Narodny Artist Ukrainy” (“People’s Artist of Ukraine”) has been the highest honor bestowed upon performing artists in Ukraine and the former Ukrainian SSR
Since 1922, the “Narodny Artist Ukrainy” (“People’s Artist of Ukraine”) has been the highest honor bestowed upon performing artists in Ukraine and the former Ukrainian SSR

When Hobart Earle, the Music Director and Principal Conductor of Odesa’s Philharmonic Orchestra, received an email from a friend congratulating him on the title of Narodny Artist Ukrainy (meaning People’s Artist of Ukraine), Earle thought he was being pranked. But just thirty minutes later, the exciting reality began to set in when Earle’s staff confirmed the award through Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s website. The honor, which originated under Soviet rule in 1922, is the most prestigious performing arts award in Ukraine and can only be granted to artists ten years after they receive the title “Distinguished Artist of Ukraine.” Considering neither title had ever been awarded to an American, Earle’s recognition has been all the more impressive.

Earle is no stranger to firsts: he was the first artist to receive the Friend of Ukraine award established by the Washington Group; he introduced the first performances of a number of classics (Mahler’s 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 9th symphonies and Strauss’s “Four Last Songs”) in Odesa; and under his leadership Odesa’s Philharmonic became the first Ukrainian orchestra to cross the Atlantic and cross the equator – and was the first orchestra to increase its status from local to regional to national funding after the establishment of an independent Ukraine.

Musical Conductor Hobart Earle becomes the first American to receive the prestigious “Narodny Artist Ukrainy” (“People’s Artist of Ukraine”) title
Musical Conductor Hobart Earle becomes the first American to receive the prestigious “Narodny Artist Ukrainy” (“People’s Artist of Ukraine”) title

Indeed, in a career marked with international awards and sold-out performances, Maestro Earle is perhaps best known for elevating Odesa’s Philharmonic Orchestra to international prominence. In August 1996, Reader’s Digest journalist Lucinda Hahn charted Earle’s impressive achievement of transforming a regional group of musicians into an internationally-recognized orchestra. The article’s headline suggests the enormity of the task: “Maestro of Their Dreams: He promised to turn a disheartened band of musicians into a world-class orchestra, but even they doubted him.” Hahn noted how at the end of a performance in one Ukrainian town, shortly following the end of the Soviet Union, Earle closed his show of American songs by turning to the audience and declaring in Ukrainian, “We really can’t leave without playing a little Ukrainian music!” – at which point his orchestra played Ukraine’s unofficial national anthem as the crowd erupted with excitement.

That’s what makes Earle’s recent award so fitting: while he brings international attention to Odesa’s classical music scene, he also brings Ukrainian music to the world – and to Ukrainians. In a telephone interview after his award was announced, Earle gave back credit to the country where he’s built his musical empire, noting that “the great thing about Ukraine is that a lot of people are involved in the arts.” Asked what advice he would give young Ukrainians interested in pursuing careers in classical music, Earle responded, “It’s important for musicians to learn other languages because it’s the key to learning other cultures… there’s no question that learning German gives you better understanding of how German music flows.”

(1)Hobart Earle receives applause after conducting at the gala celebrating the 20th Anniversary of U.S.-Ukrainian relations in January 2012
Hobart Earle receives applause after conducting at the gala celebrating the 20th Anniversary of U.S.-Ukrainian relations in January 2012

Earle’s encouragement of global learning and commitment to expanding the international reputation of Ukrainian music helps him serve as a successful cultural ambassador between the United States and Ukraine. In fact, Earle conducted a performance at a 2012 gala concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of U.S.-Ukraine relations. After the performance, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John F. Tefft – a classical music aficionado himself – publically thanked Earle on stage.

While Earle begins a well-deserved summer break from traveling the world with his orchestra, he keeps his eye on the future, looking for new ways to improve the Odesa Philharmonic Orchestra. With an internationally renowned orchestra, a loyal Ukrainian audience, and an infectiously optimistic attitude, Earle’s future as the newest People’s Artist of Ukraine continues to look bright.

Want to learn more about Hobart Earle and the Odesa Philharmonic Orchestra? Check out the following links:

The Hall 

Hobart Earle’s Biography

Hobart Earle’s Facebook

“Maestro of Their Dreams” Article in Reader’s Digest

Report on the state of Odesa’s Philharmonic Hall

Jazz Appreciation Month Starts With a Bang! Stellar Performance by Chick Corea and Gary Burton

Posted by: Heather Fabrikant, Deputy Cultural Attaché & Tim Standaert, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer

April is Jazz Appreciation Month and it certainly started with a bang in Kyiv this year.  One of the world’s most renowned jazz pianists, Chick Corea, and the incredible vibraphonist Gary Burton wowed an enthusiastic crowd with a first class performance at Palats Ukrainy on April 7th.  The duo played a mix of standards and new pieces that reflected diverse influences:  Dave Brubeck, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and even Mozart and the Beatles.

April was established as Jazz Appreciation Month a decade ago to commemorate this uniquely American musical genre; this year’s theme focuses on the legacies of women in jazz who helped build a more just and equitable nation through their music.  Throughout the month of April, concerts, retrospectives and celebrations in the U.S. and around the world are paying homage to jazz traditions and legacies.  For a taste of this year’s festivities click here.  This year’s poster slogan “Jazz: Born in America. Enjoyed Worldwide” is fitting for Ukraine, where jazz appreciation has a long history bringing us to this month’s Kyiv performance of jazz greats Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Continue reading “Jazz Appreciation Month Starts With a Bang! Stellar Performance by Chick Corea and Gary Burton”

Exclusive Interview with Mary Wilson of the Supremes

Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché 

Mary Wilson at the Ambassador's residence

Listen to Mary Wilson talking about Motown, the civil rights movement, her collection of gowns from the Supremes, and the “school of life” of a pop music star in an exclusive interview she gave to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on Feb. 3. 

Mary Wilson wrote the following about her visit to Kyiv:

“I have had the most fabulous time here in the Ukraine. We were accepted so very well at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador John Tefft, here in Kiev. The Ambassador’s wife, Mariella, was so very gracious and came on stage with me to sing “Stop …In The Name Of Love”; actually it was in her living room!” -Mary Wilson of the Supremes

Mary Wilson and Mariella Tefft singing at the residence

Come see an interactive, multimedia exhibit at Ukrainsky Dim that tells the rags-to-riches tale of the most successful group of the 1960s, The Supremes! Amidst the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, the Motown sound emerged and grew to characterize the time. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to learn more about this era. The exhibit is FREE and open daily from Feb 4 to 14, 11AM – 7PM.

Prelude to Black History Month, Part Two: Mary Wilson of the Supremes

Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché, and Heather Fabrikant, Deputy Cultural Attaché

As part of our commemoration of Black History Month, the U.S. Embassy is thrilled to be hosting Mary Wilson in Kyiv. She will perform a concert on February 4 at 7pm at The Concert Hall of the Tchaikovsky Music Academy (tickets can be bought at the box office) and The Story of the Supremes exhibit featuring the Supremes’ renowned fashion-defining dresses and a photographic tour of The Supremes and the civil rights movement will appear at Ukrainsky Dim (open daily from 11AM – 7PM from February 4 – 14).

One of the most successful musical groups of all time, The Supremes (Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson) skyrocketed to fame in the 1960s with a string of number one hit songs. Their glamorous style and broad appeal made them the most popular female group in America at the time, rivaling even The Beatles. Continue reading “Prelude to Black History Month, Part Two: Mary Wilson of the Supremes”

Folk Legend Peter Yarrow of “Peter, Paul and Mary,” and Maria Burmaka Record Ukrainian CD For Anti-Bullying Campaign

Posted by:  Susan Cleary, Cultural Affairs Officer

Peter Yarrow and Maria Burmaka singing in a "Coffein" recording studio
Peter Yarrow and Maria Burmaka singing in a "Coffein" recording studio

Watching Peter Yarrow and Maria Burmaka working in a “Coffein” Studio to record three songs for Peter’s anti-bullying campaign “Operation Respect,” you would think they had been singing together for years.   But when they met on Dec 16 to record, they had only communicated through e-mail and through their music.   The resulting collaboration seemed so natural, Peter said to Maria after an impromptu first singing of Blowing in the Wind,  “This was meant to be!”

Folk singer Peter Yarrow, of the influential folk band “Peter, Paul and Mary” is in Ukraine this week as part of a campaign to teach tolerance and respect to school children through music.  His song “Don’t Laugh at Me” was written for this program which has been introduced into more than 22,000 schools in the United States and will be taught in Ukraine through partnerships with the Peace Corp, YMCA and Alternative V and with support of the Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy.   Maria Burmaka’s Ukrainian version, as recorded on Thursday with Peter, is a surprisingly beautiful and touching song that works as well with adults as with children.  Maria’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and “Let it Shine,”  work remarkably well in translation.   Continue reading “Folk Legend Peter Yarrow of “Peter, Paul and Mary,” and Maria Burmaka Record Ukrainian CD For Anti-Bullying Campaign”