Across the United States, each June we celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month. As representatives of the United States abroad, our diplomats do the same – offering educational and cultural programming that raises awareness about LGBT human rights issues both at home and abroad.
This year, I was proud to support a bold initiative by our Public Affairs team to bring an a capella ensemble from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington called “Potomac Fever.” At the end of May, as part of our America Days festival in Lviv, I was able to stand on the stage of the Philharmonic with Mayor Andriy Sadoviy and Governor Oleh Synyutka and introduce a gay chorus. Let that sink in for a minute. This was a big step for everyone involved. Just three months ago in Lviv, violent protests disrupted a planned LGBT event. And here I was introducing a 14-member gay singing group in one of Lviv’s most prestigious public venues. It was just more proof of how quickly Ukraine is changing for the better. And I could not be more proud.
For the U.S. Embassy, the program represented a unique and important opportunity to introduce Ukrainians to gay Americans not solely because they are gay Americans, but because they represent to the best of America – with all of its talents and diversity. While the G in LGBT is an important part of Potomac Fever’s identity, they are not singularly defined by it. And we wanted to Ukraine to see that. Their music and stories highlighted the LGBT human rights struggle, making it human and relatable. LGBT people in Ukraine are facing similar challenges every day and we hope that Potomac Fever’s program brought a sense of solidarity and hope.
The fact that a large and peace Equality March took place in Kyiv on June 12 makes me think that it did. It was such a huge accomplishment for everyone involved, from the local activists to city officials and law enforcement. By embracing European values of inclusiveness and tolerance, you showed the world that Ukraine is Europe. And that love wins.
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.
Recently I joined Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, his family and an audience of over 10,000 on Independence Square to watch the World Breakdancing Championship. Sponsored by Burn Battle School, hundreds of young Ukrainian b-boys and b-girls “battled” (competed) in four categories: best youth b-boy, men’s, women’s and team or “crew.” I was blown away by the popularity of the event and amazed at the skill level of the Ukrainian breakers. Even more impressive was that, although competition was fierce, the atmosphere was positive — even festive — a bit like watching a college football game in my native Ohio.
Because our Embassy was one of the event’s sponsors, the Ambassador awarded the first place prize in the youth category. The winner was a 10-year old dancing tornado from Kyiv: Andrei Kirilin. Taking first was no small feat on Andrei’s side. The youth division included kids as old as 16, and many of the contestants were almost twice Andrei’s size. But in breaking, where preparation, innovation and speed trump strength, “Davids” often best “Goliaths.” Andrei’s victory was a testament to years of training and the support of his studio, Kinder Crew of Kyiv. Backstage, many of Andrei’s Kinder Crew friends were there to support him along with older b-boy mentors, coaches, and family.
Hip-hop and, by extension, breaking, has always faced an up-hill battle in the image department, partly due to a “gangster” motif that has eclipsed other aspects of the movement, and partly due to misconceptions of what b-boying is really about. If my experience on the Maidan showed me anything, it is that breakdancing can set a positive example for young people in Ukraine. No matter how hard two “crews” “ battled”, and no matter the color of their skin or where they were from, when the music stopped and the winner was announced the competitors always came together in the center of the stage, shook hands, embraced and showed signs of mutual respect.
These positive aspects are in keeping with breaking’s American roots. When it emerged from New York’s boroughs in the 1970s, break dancing’s “street” status meant there were no coaches, teams or leagues. For an aspiring b-girl or b-boy, getting in was easy but getting good was hard. You had to learn from somebody. Talk to any accomplished “old” b-boy or b-girl about how they learned and they will smile and rattle off the names of the best b-boys in the previous generation: people who inspired them, took them under their wing, and invited them to join a “crew” that could help them reach the next level. “Each one teach one” is a quiet mantra in breakdancing that still holds true.
Perhaps no other crew has internalized “each one teach one” like Seattle, Washington’s Massive Monkees Crew. Our Embassy was proud to support them as our country’s entry in the Burn Battle School’s team competition. As dancers, Massive Monkees have won at the highest international level. But what sets them apart is how they have parlayed that success into opportunities for their community, and particularly for the next generation. One example is their Extraordinary Futures NGO, which uses dance to teach self-discipline, boost confidence, and broaden the horizons of at-risk kids. In recent years they have even used city support and crowd sourcing to turn their Seattle dance studio, aptly called “the Beacon,” into a community center complete with afterschool programs, toddler dance classes, music and art. No wonder the Mayor of Seattle created a “Massive Monkees Day” in their honor.
Massive Monkees brought this spirit of civic activism with them to Kyiv. Over the course of three days they taught classes, visited summer camps, hosted hip hop films, judged dance contests and performed for thousands of young Ukrainians. They talked about breakdancing’s celebration of diversity and demonstrated its ability to break down barriers and to build young people up. But Massive Monkees weren’t alone in delivering this message. Their trip was supported by a national network of Ukrainian crews and dance studios. At each event they were joined by veteran Ukrainian b-boys and b-girls who shared their own experience with the younger kids or were there as chaperones, trainers and mentors.
In the end, one can say that this year’s Burn Battle School was a success because hundreds of kids competed and thousands more came to watch. But what is more important is that it proved that breaking is alive and well in Ukraine. Clearly, local b-boys and b-girls have developed a thriving community that stretches from Kyiv to Sevastopol, Lviv to Lutsk ….And that’s a good thing.
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:
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.
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
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.