BERLIN — There was a warm ovation as the musicians of the Odesa Philharmonic Orchestra came onstage here on Tuesday evening, and cheers when the ensemble played the Ukrainian anthem. Applause greeted the conductor Hobart Earle’s spoken introduction in German.
But none of that was as loud as the roar from the crowd at the Philharmonie when Earle switched to Ukrainian. To hear that language spoken in front of dozens of Ukrainian musicians in a Western European capital was a stirring sign of the defiant survival of Ukraine — and its culture — in the face of Russia’s war of aggression. (The concert can be viewed at mediathek.berlinerfestspiele.de through Sept. 17.)
That defiance was particularly powerful coming from an orchestra from Odesa, whose port holds the key to the Black Sea and the global grain trade. The city may be the most strategically and symbolically crucial prize of the war as it drags on.
The Philharmonic, which dates its modern history to the 1930s, was performing in Berlin for the first time, but it was led by an old friend: Earle, born in Venezuela to American parents, has been the orchestra’s conductor for 30 years, an unusually long tenure these days.
“I never imagined that I would be a long-term music director,” Earle said in an interview the day before the concert. “And I certainly never planned on being a music director in a time of war.”
The program of works by Myroslav Skoryk, Mykola Lysenko, Alemdar Karamanov and Sibelius came together rapidly after Winrich Hopp, the artistic director of Musikfest Berlin (part of the Berliner Festspiele), contacted the orchestra in early July. Earle, who had left Ukraine in February, flew back to Odesa to rehearse an ensemble that had been largely silenced for six months by the war.
“How could I not go back to try and put this orchestra together again?” he said.
With the Ukrainian government granting permission for male players to travel, even though men of military age are now barred from leaving the country, the performance could go forward. Even a double bass broken in transit could not dim the high spirits of the occasion, and what Earle called “the indomitable Odesa humor.”
“Any orchestra is a mirror of its city,” he said. “Odesa is very well known in the former Soviet Union as a capital of humor. It’s a city where it’s so important during hard times, this ability to be flexible in the face of problems and to live life with a smile.”
Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
What has happened to the orchestra and the players during the past six months?
My last concert was on Feb. 12, and the mood was going downhill really fast: “Maybe the American intelligence has something here; why are they sounding such an alarm; maybe this is really going to happen.” And we played — unplanned — the overture to Lysenko’s great Ukrainian opera “Taras Bulba,” one of our old war horses.
After the war broke out, we didn’t know what was going to happen next. After the invasion of Crimea, in 2014, we had done a flash mob playing “Ode to Joy” in the fish market, and we tried to get permission to do that again, at sites around Odesa. But we couldn’t get permission. So we decided [to release online] the audio of the last movement of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 21st Symphony, the last big piece we played before the pandemic. It’s a kaddish he dedicated to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto. We took the music and added images from the concert hall and the war, but also images of Ukrainian life — to try and make it not terribly bleak, like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and we released that at the end of March.
Had everyone stayed in Odesa?
Some people had gone abroad, and some went to villages in western Ukraine. We have a lot of split families now — that’s very common, with wives and children abroad. But as people came back, the orchestra started playing weekly chamber concerts in May.
Several of the players were in civilian defense units. One of our stagehands was actually in the army — he would be here except he had concussions and high blood pressure and got some time off, but he was on the front. Our principal clarinet is also in the armed forces, but his function right now is not fighting; he’s helping the wounded and driving ambulances. But they let him have time off to come with us.
What was it like for you to return to Ukraine?
It was rather sad, because the city is historically one of the great cosmopolitan cities of Europe. During the summer it’s usually bursting, and it’s empty now. But you can feel some life coming back on the streets, and in the restaurants and cafes.
How did you initially connect with this orchestra?
I came to the Soviet Union with a chamber orchestra from Vienna in 1990. With this orchestra, we had been doing rarely performed American music in Austria, and rarely performed Austrian music in America. And someone said we should take our American program to the Soviet Union. Almost none of us had ever been there before.
One of the cities was Odesa, and I was then invited to come guest-conduct the Philharmonic. I came in April 1991, not speaking a word of Russian. I speak some Western European languages and English, but there wasn’t any ability to communicate. This was terra incognita, the Iron Curtain. And through an amazing turn of fate, there was one viola player from Cuba, and I could speak Spanish with him, and he was my translator. And it all grew out of that. If not for that, I wouldn’t have had any real chance of continuing.
Can you tell me about program you’ve brought to Berlin?
The basic idea was to focus on three composers. We start with Skoryk — part of his 1965 score for a classic of Soviet film called “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.” This piece is called “Childhood”; it’s happy children’s music, very folkloric, and there’s so much folklore in Ukrainian culture and history. The idea was to go directly from this children’s music into an elegy by Lysenko — a piano piece, in a new orchestral version. And we’re dedicating this pairing to the children who are suffering so badly in this war.
And Karamonov’s Third Piano Concerto?
Nobody wrote music like this in 1968, not in the Soviet Union, not in Western Europe. He was a Crimean Tatar Muslim, and his father was exiled to Siberia, so in 1944 Karamanov wasn’t in Crimea but in Moscow with his mother, or else he would have been sent there as well.
He went away from avant-garde music and came back to Crimea and this is one of the first pieces he wrote there. It’s a very religious piece: He was Muslim, but he had an experience that turned him totally toward Christianity, which was remarkable in the Soviet Union. He was very interested in jazz and all these forbidden things. It’s very reflective music; you can feel in some places the influence of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, but that’s just fleeting moments. Other times you can feel these blues harmonies — with a deep religious underpinning. And a fascinating ending, totally unexpected: His words were that this is a rain, a spiritual rain.
And the Sibelius?
Winrich Hopp said we should play something in which the orchestra can really shine. And I came to Sibelius’s Second Symphony, which has the whole underpinning of patriotism. And we wanted to end with something upbeat. This music, the sort of narrative of this symphony, is something which now, during this war, we feel differently. This piece has a lot of dark moments, but that last movement …
Has the issue of playing Russian music with the orchestra come up?
I did a Shostakovich Five in Poland at the beginning of February, and that music fit the atmosphere so precisely. I’ve been asked a lot about Russian music. But Ukrainians just do not want to hear it now, and I think we need to respect that.
Have you been able to explore Berlin during your stay?
I realized that I haven’t been here since the fall of the Wall! So I’m exploring it. I found the site of the old Philharmonie, where the Berlin Philharmonic played. But there’s a sadness to being in Berlin now. It’s still a construction site. And it makes you wonder how many years it is going to take to rebuild Ukraine.