Alumnus commutes from Ukraine to lead orchestra
By Ruth Stevens
Princeton NJ -- Hobart Earle has quite a history with Richardson Auditorium. Toward the end of his senior year at Princeton in 1983, he was invited to take the stage and lead the Princeton University Orchestra in Barber's "Adagio for Strings" during a concert. Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt took the unusual step with Earle, who was his first conducting student at the University and the clarinet section leader.
Ten years later, Earle returned with his baton to Richardson -- this time as music director and principal conductor of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra in Ukraine. As the first American citizen to head an orchestra in the former Soviet Union, he had made his alma mater one of the stops on a U.S. tour.
Next month, Earle will step on the Richardson stage, once again at the invitation of Pratt. After 25 years as the University's orchestra conductor, Pratt has taken a one-semester leave to recharge his batteries. He invited Earle to take a trip halfway around the world to serve as the guest conductor for the orchestra's Dec. 5 and 7 concerts.
Earle, who arrived back on campus the week of Nov. 4, said the orchestra has "improved dramatically for the better" since his student days here. "There seems to be more depth," Earle said. He has been rehearsing with the full group three days a week as well as conducting sectional practices. "The students are very focused and very enthusiastic," he said.
He also has been squeezing in visits with his former professors and reminiscing about his time on campus. Earle said his Princeton experience opened the field of conducting as a career path for him, although he already had been focused on music in high school.
"The study of composition and music analysis and theory here was extremely valuable," he said. "For any performer, it's very good to try to understand the makings and workings of music -- the wine inside the bottle. The business of looking at scores and studying scores was what turned me much more toward conducting."
Learning to lead
Earle's years at Princeton were his first and only living experience in the United States. He was born in Caracas, Venezuela, where his parents were living at the time. His father, Eldon Earle, a member of Princeton's class of 1935, was an insurance executive there. His mother, Ruth Earle, was a graduate of Westminster Choir College and a church musician. The couple eventually retired in Princeton and died here just last year.
Earle went to boarding school in Scotland, and decided he wanted to attend his father's alma mater to have a university experience rather than enroll in a music conservatory. During his sophomore year at Princeton, he won an audition organized by Pratt for a student conductor of the University Wind Ensemble. Earle started taking conducting lessons from Pratt as well as continuing to play the clarinet in the orchestra. During his senior year, he served as assistant conductor of the University Orchestra -- an experience that culminated in his leading the orchestra during that March 1983 concert.
"It was clear from the outset that this was a young man who had a deep hunger for music, and he gulped down everything I could throw at him, and asked for more," wrote Pratt in an e-mail message from London. "It has been a great pleasure to follow his remarkable development from his student days both here and in Vienna through his building of one of the finest orchestras I've heard. And it's an even greater pleasure to welcome him back."
After graduation, Earle attended the Academy of Music in Vienna and studied conducting with Ferdinand Leitner in Salzburg and Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa at Tanglewood. After finishing his studies at the academy, he did some conducting with local orchestras and then, in 1987, formed his own chamber orchestra that performed contemporary American music in Vienna and contemporary Viennese music in the United States.
This chamber orchestra took its American music program on tour to the former Soviet Union in 1990, and Earle conducted the group in a concert in Odessa. He was invited back as guest conductor of the Odessa Philharmonic and was offered the job as permanent conductor in spring 1991 -- at age 30.
Earle spoke English, Italian, French, Spanish and German -- but not Russian or Ukrainian. "Luckily, there was a Cuban violist in the orchestra," he said. "I could speak Spanish to him and he could translate. At that time, nobody else in the orchestra spoke another language -- the Soviet Union was totally closed."
A few months later, the Soviet Union dissolved and things began to change.
Rising to the challenge
When Earle joined the orchestra, Philharmonic Hall in Odessa had heavy curtains hanging all over the stage that soaked up the orchestra's sound. The musicians were playing instruments not much better than those belonging to a high school band. And the annual payroll for the entire orchestra was less than it would have taken to hire a decent violinist in New York.
Under Earle's leadership, the orchestra began working on its repertoire. It performed to wide acclaim in Ukraine and in major concert halls in 12 other countries, including the United States. An American donor read about Earle and his work in a newspaper, and began contributing money for new instruments.
Earle made sure the Ukrainian government knew about the orchestra's successes and, in 1993, officials raised the orchestra from regional to federal status, and again in 2002 to national status. It is the only performing arts organization in the country to have accomplished this feat, which translated into funds to take down the heavy curtains, rebuild the stage, install new seats in the hall and increase the musicians' pay. The group even got some help to post a Web site at <www.odessaphilharmonic.org>.
Earle still has much work to do. Sometimes he has to cut short or cancel a rehearsal when it's particularly cold outside and the heating system cannot compensate for the wind seeping through the six 900-square-foot stained glass windows in the hall (or when the hall's management has booked a rock concert).
Dealing with the politics and the logistics of everyday living in Ukraine can be exhausting, according to Earle. While he believes the standard of living has not decreased overall since the USSR's breakup, he said the gap between affluent and poor has grown immensely. Even setting ticket prices can be a struggle. Right now, the seats for a performance can range from 25 cents to $20.
"I tend to be a hands-on type of person," he said. "If I weren't, I wouldn't have survived even one year in Odessa or anywhere else in that part of the world. My solution is just to do what it takes to get it done. If things don't work, then the end result suffers -- it's all interconnected. If we have poor lighting on our stage, the musicians' mood is bad and they will play worse."
Earle spends more than half of the year in Odessa with his wife, Aida, a violinist in the orchestra who is from Ukraine. The rest of the time, he is guest conducting in places such as Russia and Italy. Why not turn one of those guest conducting opportunities into a permanent job?
First of all, Earle said that it's stimulating to be part of Odessa's great musical tradition. (The city has produced many virtuosos, including violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Emil Gilels). "We have a great following in the city," Earle said.
But it all boils down to the determination rooted in Earle's soul.
"At Gordonstoun, my high school in Scotland, the motto -- 'plus est en vous' -- translates into meaning 'There is more in you than you think,'" he said. "In other words, if there's a challenge, you can rise to the challenge. My tenure in Odessa can be seen as a perfect example of trying to rise to the challenge and make a difference."