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.
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.
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.
On September 27, I joined Ambassador Pyatt in Kyiv’s Podil neighborhood for a very special ceremony. Joined by his Canadian and German counterparts, the Ambassador spoke at the dedication ceremony for the Hatikva Reform Synagogue and its new community center in Kyiv. In his remarks, the Ambassador acknowledged the congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Dukhovny, as “a friend and teacher to generations of American ambassadors here in Kyiv.” Pausing to remember the 72nd anniversary of the massacres at Baby Yar and its victims, he spoke about the history of the Jewish community in Ukraine, its resilience, and how he was inspired by the congregation’s return to its roots in Kyiv’s historic Podil neighborhood. Reminding participants that “the guiding principles of tolerance, cooperation, and respect for human dignity that are embodied in this center are essential to Americans as well,” the Ambassador told participants he had great expectations for the center and its future work.
The new structure, paid for with donations by three North American families, replaced rental facilities which had served the community for 22 years. The new 4,000 square-foot center has a sanctuary with seating for 150, activity rooms, a library, youth center and kitchenette. After the speeches, the fun began! Hatikva’s youngest members, approximately 20 of its Kyiv Reform Kindergarten students kicked off the festivities with song and dance, reminding all of us that the Center has a bright future ahead! A rousing performance by Irina Rosenfeld followed, along with many more expressions of congratulations.
With the new center now open, the Embassy wasted no time in kicking off our cooperative relationship. Just two weeks later, on October 10, Hatikva hosted the first Ukrainian screening of the film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. The movie, a portrait of a great writer whose stories became the basis of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, tells the tale of the rebellious genius who created an entirely new literature. Working in at the end of the 19th century in Western Ukraine, he explored the depths of a Jewish world locked in crisis and on the cusp of profound change and he captured that world with brilliant humor. In an earlier blog we wrote about the Ambassador’s visit to the building in Lviv that Sholem Aleichem once called home.
According to the film’s director Joe Dorman, Sholem Aleichem was one of the men who shaped a new modern Jewish identity. After the screening, Dorman, an award-winning independent filmmaker, answered questions and discussed how he made visits to Ukraine during the production of the film and gained a deeper understanding of Jewish and Ukrainian culture, including the many links between the two. He explained the critical role that Sholem Aleichem’s works played in preserving Jewish identity in the United States, and for Jewish diaspora more broadly. The Embassy was happy to present the film as an interesting cultural link between the U.S. and Ukraine, but also as an example of Ukraine’s multicultural past, and Ukraine’s Jewish heritage. In addition to the Hatkiva screening, the Embassy sponsored public presentations of the film in Kyiv and Lviv, which were well attended.
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.
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.
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.”
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: