Hobart Earle, the conductor of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra, is the kind of guy who makes converts. He's not a preacher. He's not a salesman. But he does preach and he does sell. And then he's got you. "He's not only an artist, he's an entrepreneur," said J. William Holt, a businessman and arts patron who lives in Maine and New York. "I don't know how he got that spirit, but he's determined to win. I admire his bravery. He walks in where angels fear to tread. He can charm the wallpaper off the wall."
Holt should know. He met Earle several years ago on a train near New York City. The two struck up a conversation and, before long, Holt was a convert, too. He helped the orchestra get a gig for the United Nations in New York City.
Probably, Earle's appeal begins with his youthful good looks. At 36, he is 6 reedy feet of frisky sophistication that could easily woo the young ones, charm the old ones and engage the big ones. A Princeton graduate, he's also smart, articulate, pithy.
Then there's the voice. Earle was born in Venezuela, educated in Scotland and Vienna, mentored by Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. He speaks six, almost seven languages. He's American but his accent could be European. It could also be Southern. Or maybe Latin American. Take your pick - it's versatile and familiar that way.
Earlier this week, Earle's voice was groggy. The phone rang at not quite midmorning in his Ohio hotel, where he was asleep after a whirlwind tour routine. Sleepily, he answered. Then quickly he was ready to talk. Just as quickly, it was clear that he wanted to talk. Knew it was time to be "on."
Presumably, Hobart Earle, an upstart conductor, could do anything he wants. In spite of his international upbringing, he typifies the American can-do spirit. Holt described him as having the "manners of a European." That combination of Euro-smarts and New World zeal is exactly the key that has opened doors for Hobey, as he is called by friends.
The project he has wanted to do - and therefore has done - for the past seven years is the revitalization of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra, which performs tonight at the Maine Center for the Arts. Turns out that Holt, who also owns the opulently Russian Firebird Restaurant in New York City, was instrumental in bringing the orchestra to Maine during the current 14-venue tour. Since 1991, when Earle came to the podium, the orchestra has made three visits to America, and has performed at Carnegie Hall as well as the Kennedy Center. Earle, who can rattle off percentages and numbers and dates effortlessly, adds another fact: the orchestra has done 350 concerts in 12 countries in six years.
"We've seen a lot of the world together, and we're almost like family," said Earle. "Basically, it's quite a relationship. Ten years ago, I would never have expected to have a relationship like this with an orchestra."
Earle's bio lists him as the first American citizen to become music director of an orchestra from the former Soviet Union. He has been awarded the title "Distinguished Artist of Ukraine." But here's the bit of information that continually makes Earle's story fascinating. He never intended to be where he is right now, living in Odessa, leading a group of Ukrainian musicians toward prominence, speaking both Russian and Ukrainian, both music and business.
In 1990, he was simply passing through the Black Sea port with a chamber group from Vienna. He was invited to guest conduct Odessa's orchestra and, like Jack and the magic beans, it grew into something much larger, indeed something golden. Ever since, Earle has been cultivating a career and planting a new seed hi Odessa.
Mostly, however, he has been cultivating the 90-plus-piece orchestra, and in many essential ways, Earle might say, the experience has not been golden. Countless articles have been written on Earle's struggle to upgrade instruments, living conditions and salaries for the
orchestra, which was founded in 1936. A retired foreign service officer living in Switzerland read one of those articles and consequently raised more than $90,000, The man, Paul Van Mark, who has since died, saw Earle as an ambassador for America in Ukraine.
"He knew that the stability of Ukraine is very important for the stability of the entire region," Earle said. "If it's stable, it can be a buffer for Russia and the West."
In January 1993, the government of Ukraine awarded federal status to the orchestra, the first Ukrainian music organization outside Kiev to be granted such a rating. The musicians now earn $120 to 150 a month, which is higher than the national average and double what they were earning before that year. Still, Earle said, "It's nothing. It's as little as it sounds."
Earle has supplemented his own salary with guest conducting spots. In recent years, however, he has taken far fewer jobs away from Odessa. The orchestra, he said, is all-consuming. "I used to be a golfer," he said. "I had a 7 handicap. But I don't play golf in Odessa."
In Odessa, Earle has a handicap of a different sort: He knows there's much work to be done. In a resort town with a long, prestigious history of fine string playing, it's like a bad joke that rehearsals in the gorgeous 19th century Venetian Gothic concert hall - a testament to Mediterranean influences - can be brutal. It's poorly lit and inadequately heated ~ to the point of canceling rehearsals because the building hardly warms to 50 degrees. The bassists need new cases for transporting their instruments on planes, and the men need new concert clothing since the tails they wear now are more than 20 years old.
"Odessa is a big cradle of music and has been for many years," said Suzanne Massie, an expert on Russian art and culture, and author of several books on the subject. "Hobie is an extraordinary chap and it's a marvelous thing that an American is the conductor of that orchestra. Odessa was - indeed, always has been - in the Russian Empire an important musical center, particularly for violinists."
Massie, who will give a general overview of Russian history in a pre-concert lecture before a Ukrainian dinner tonight, lives in Blue Hill. Earlier this week, she was in Russia for events
surrounding the Russian publication of one of her books, and returned specifically to attend this Maine Center concert. She explained that the word "Ukraine" means "beyond the frontier" and that the area was a haven for people who sought to live more freely, more on the edge than might be possible in ulterior cities, such as Moscow or St. Petersburg.
The history seems particularly apt for the Odessa Philharmonic, now trying to make its way in a post-Soviet free zone with an American holding the baton.
"I found this orchestra irresistible," said Earle. "I have to say that in addition to being very frustrating, it has been very rewarding. I've been on the breaking edge of watching a culture be reborn."
Like all canny entrepreneurs and alert artists, Earle is looking toward the 21st century. "I've done everything I can to raise the orchestra to what it is now in the present location," said Earle, whose musical work has been praised by critics around the world.
And although the focus is always the music, the emphasis of his last comment is on the word "location." Earle wants to refurbish the Odessa concert hall, and that's the next project, the one that Earle intends to have transport this Ukrainian symphony orchestra into the next millennium in style.
Hobart Earle will conduct the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra 8 p.m. March 27 at the Maine Center for the Arts, Pre-concert events, including lectures, a reception and an Ukrainian dinner, begin at 4:30 p.m. For information and tickets, call 581-1755.