Special Issue: The Creative Campus — Princeton and the arts

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Hobart Earle ’83, conductor

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An abridged version of the following story was published in the Jan. 25 issue of PAW:

Hobart Earle, conductor

When Hobart Earle ’83 became the conductor of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra in 1991, he took over an orchestra where woodwind players had post-concert headaches from trumpets blasting into their ears, concert tails were decades old and uncomfortably hot, and heavy curtains made for an acoustical nightmare. The bookkeeping was done by abacus, which may have been for the better, since the entire orchestra made less than a single musician in New York. Then there was the matter of performing before half-empty concert halls.

But there was also a more immediate problem for Earle, a Venezuelan-born Princeton music major who spoke Spanish, English, German, French, and Italian but not Russian or Ukrainian. He couldn’t communicate with the orchestra.

Luckily, a violinist from Cuba stepped up. “I spoke Spanish to him, and he spoke Russian to the orchestra,” Earle explained.

And so the fairy-tale rise of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra began.

In 14 years, Earle has taken the Odessa Philharmonic from a provincial orchestra equipped with instruments a well-funded high school would shun and turned it into a globe-trotting phenomenon that performs with top guest musicians, takes home classical music awards, and gave former president Bill Clinton a serenade.

He has done it by pairing a complicated international repertoire with attention to contemporary Ukrainian composers. Under Earle, the orchestra played Austrian giants Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner for the first time and got a taste of American composer Aaron Copland.

But most of all, Earle, the first non-European conductor to lead an orchestra in the former Soviet Union, has earned the trust of a Ukrainian port city with a long-standing musical tradition and a formidable sense of artistic pride. “European groups will accept an American conductor if they come with a pedigree, if they’re James Levine or Leonard Bernstein. But for a young unknown American conductor to be accepted and embraced from an orchestra is completely different,” says Princeton University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt, who taught Earle 20 years ago. “The fact that they willingly play Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, their guys, and play it beautifully says a lot” about Earle, Pratt says.

Born to an American businessman and a choral conductor in Venezuela, Earle says he “grew up with music all around me,” singing the boy’s soprano role in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and studying piano and clarinet. At 11 he went to boarding school in Scotland and began to conduct.

It was at Princeton that he began to understand what music was all about. “When I came to Princeton as a freshman, a lot of my experience and my approach to musical performance was totally emotional, without any deeper understanding of what was really going on,” he says. “The four years I had at Princeton … really opened up the psychological side of music and the thinking side of music.”

Pratt’s first conducting student, Earle led the full-size Princeton University Orchestra in Richardson Auditorium, a rare honor for an undergraduate. But Pratt says he didn’t need to teach the young conductor all that much. “Conducting in some ways is almost an impossible thing to teach; you can either do it or you can’t – and it was clear that he could,” Pratt says. “He had the physical gifts and the musicianship.”

After graduation Earle took off for the Academy of Music in Vienna, and from there made his way to Odessa. En route he picked up some tips from conducting greats like Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, both of whom he met at Tanglewood Music Center.

Earle is both discursive and brilliant, with an impeccable memory for details and a penchant for ruminating on anything, musical or not. On the music side, he’ll discuss the Beatles (did they know they were using 32-bar form?) and Shostakovich (a Russian composer or a Soviet one?) with equal alacrity. Musicians who play for Earle describe his style as open and encouraging – a dialogue rather than a dictum. The approachability extends even to his name: For the orchestra, and just about everyone else, Earle goes by Hobey.

“When he opens his hands to the orchestra, his gesticulations are very inviting and when he rehearses with his orchestra, he speaks really directly out of his heart,” says Dietmar Kueblboeck, the principal trombonist of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, who has been a soloist with the Odessa Philharmonic. “He tries to make the orchestra members as enthusiastic as he is himself.”

Or as Leonid Tiskun, the principal second violinist of the Odessa Philharmonic puts it: “Hobey is very, very emotional and he wants his influence on each musician. Each musician must put out all his effort. … He said if I play this music I should like this music, and I have to do all in my power that the audience like this music.” Before Earle’s arrival, Tishkun says, about one-quarter of the hall’s seats would be occupied. Now, they sell out.

On the northern tip of the Black Sea, the city of Odessa, with 1.1 million people, was founded by Catherine the Great in 1794 and quickly grew into a cosmopolitan port, with street names like Greek Street, Italian Street, and French Street to attest to its internationalism. It was a place of culture as well as commerce, inspiring poet Alexander Pushkin and giving rise to short story writer Isaac Babel and painter Wassily Kandinsky. It also developed a powerful musical tradition.

The Odessa Conservatory, an intense training ground for classical musicians, was founded in the early 20th century, along with a music school for young children. Musicians like pianists Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter and violinists David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein helped make the city’s reputation a serious one. Founded in 1937, the Odessa Philharmonic was the recipient of this steady flow of well-trained talent, but in the Soviet scheme of things, only two orchestras mattered: Moscow and St. Petersburg.

By the late 1980s, the Odessa orchestra had fallen on hard times. Attendance was down, equipment was worn, and a cold draft blew into Philharmonic Hall on winter nights. Most of the musicians never had played outside the country, and there was no government support for touring or instruments, Tiskun says.

Earle came to the Odessa orchestra first as a guest conductor and was then – at the salary of $50 a month – invited to stay. He was all of 30. When he first arrived, he had one main objective: to inspire: “My first priority was to do whatever I could to motivate two groups of individuals at the same time, the musicians and the audience, and the audience we motivated in the first years by a very heavy dose of music they had never heard before.” But he quickly proved himself to be a managerial mastermind in addition to a brilliant musician, acquired what has been described as a fluent Russian, and endeared himself to the heart of the orchestra. He married one of the violinists.

Earle became an adept fund-raiser, developing international and local fund-raising groups and acquiring sponsorships, like backing from Odessa brandy company Shustoff, to help supply the orchestra with everything from scores and double basses to rosin. He also swung a promotion for the 95-member orchestra, boosting it from regional to national status in the Ukraine, which means that the government now kicks in for touring and equipment.

At first, Earle aroused suspicion as an American taking the reins of a European orchestra. Yet he was also something of a novelty, “the first American many people had seen or gotten to know,” he says, and was unambiguous in his desire to do something new. In addition to debuting work by the philosophical Mahler and Bruckner, Earle introduced British composers Gustav Holst and Edward Elgar and Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” broadening the orchestra’s range of western music far beyond Beethoven and Brahms. He also brought in Western traditions, like playing Johann Strauss on New Year’s Eve and holding pre-concert talks before a show. He devoted the orchestra to Ukrainian composers, turning out CDs like Kiev composer Reinhold Gliere’s rendition of “Taras Bulba” by Nikolai Gogol. But above all, he took the orchestra on the road to famed auditoriums, like the Musikverein in Vienna and the Philharmonie in Cologne, and less-famed ones, like Richardson at Princeton.

For the musicians, touring was an enormous boost, an affirmation that they could “play on the great stage” with the world’s best orchestras, Tiskun says. Vienna’s Die Presse wrote that the orchestra had “perfected the idiom of Viennese waltz,” playing elegant waltz-tableaus “without overlooking all the subtleties not present in the music.” Germany’s Stuttgarter Zeitung lauded Earle for “bringing consistency to heterogeneity” in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, writing: “Anyone setting out merely to ‘play correctly’ risks permanent boredom. Not Hobart Earle.” The Sunday Times of Australia said simply that the orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “must go down as one of the best performances of Mahler in Perth.”

On tour, he carefully fits program to place. At the 2004 Budapest Spring Festival, for example, the Odessa Philharmonic played Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa, sandwiched between Liszt and Tchaikovsky. And when former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Odessa in 2000, the orchestra struck up an impromptu “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and then encored with “America the Beautiful.”

Earle is the first to say the work isn’t over. The orchestra doesn’t own its own concert hall, for one, so the Odessa Philharmonic competes with fashion shows, wine tastings and rock concerts, among other events, for theater time. But the days of the provincial orchestra fighting the acoustic-defying stage curtains and playing before half-empty music halls are long gone.

“There are a lot of conductors out there who could stand in front of the Berlin Philharmonic and it would sound great no matter who they are,” Pratt says. “He built this from the ground up.”

By Anne Ruderman ’01


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