THE SILENT ODESSA SYMPHONY
Consider a donation to help Ukraine and Ukrainian by making a donation to Razom for Ukraine, a non-for-profit organization led by by Dora Chomiak. Razom provides critical medical supplies as well as tech-enabled emergency response supplies to facilitate the delivery of aid. Meaning “together” in Ukrainian, Razom believes deeply in the enormous potential of dedicated volunteers around the world united by a single goal. To make a donation, click here and hashtag #OdessaPhilharmonicOrchestra (find also this information at the end of the post).
Special thanks to Delphine Schrank for editing this story
Odessa, Ukraine, March 22nd, 2014. A rhythmic beat pulsed from inside the fish market, a strange percussionist melody composed instinctively, on site, and performed by fishmongers scrapping the scales of black sea bass set against the background chatter of myriad overlapping conversations, and the rustle of shopping bags against the coats of men and women shopping for a meal or two.
It was a typical Saturday morning in a vibrant city, a strategic port and a symbol of European culture and unity. Well, not exactly a typical Saturday. A day earlier, Russia had officially ratified the annexation of the nearby Ukrainian province of Crimea, triggering a shock-wave across the rest of the country and Europe that eventually died out in the torpor of an apathetic world response.
Suddenly, a man armed with a double bass and a band of others carrying violins appeared from different corners of the fish market. Without prelude, one after the next planted themselves in a strategic spot, beside a bronze statue, behind counters stacked with cans and olive oils, and among the fish stalls. They started softly with notes from Beethoven 9th Symphony. Amid shoppers still more concerned with choosing between fresh tuna, mackerel or herring, all the marine life of the Black Sea, others were instantly mesmerized, pressing in on the musicians. The group of performers swelled, some with no instruments at all. Like the perceptive tentacles of a giant octopus, they fanned out throughout the market. From the back of the room, the American conductor of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra Hobart Earle took his cue. He pushed his way through the crowd to a place visible to the now-dozens of musicians, raised his hands and with matchless coordination folded in the choir for Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the European anthem.
“In all my years here in Odessa, March of 2014 was unprecedented,” Earle explained then in a filmed interview available online. Anxieties were heightened to breaking point. “People were probably sleeping an average of three or four hours a night because they were up trying to watch all these news programs and just understand what’s going on.” Fierce discussions and disagreements flared on street corners. “We just felt we had to do something to try to release this tension, do something to bring people together (…) because there is nothing that will divide people more than politics.”
So, Earle and his musicians decided to orchestrate a musical flash-mob for “peace and fraternity.” They generated so many plaudits that the Odessa Opera scheduled its own performance at the local airport days after, and orchestras throughout Ukraine volunteered to do the same.
Eight years to date since that flash mob for peace and fraternity, Earle and his Ukrainian wife, Aida, have now reunited with their son who lives in in Florida. Last weekend, he tried to organize a new musical flash mob—from afar, with the musicians of his native city that could be besieged at any time. Nervous about security and the imminence of a Russian attack, the army revoked his permit and shut him down.
An eerie silence now fills the streets of Odessa. Except for musicians from the Odessa Opera who ventured out two weeks ago for an emotional rendering of Verdi’s Nabucco Va Pensiero, the only strains rising from the city have the unpredictable and cacophonous cadence of an invisible war orchestra. In an e-mail Hobart Earle sent me last March 13th, he shared news he had received from his principal horn: “he told me rockets/missiles flew, twice, over their home in the Odessa suburbs. Probably anti-aircraft. He said it was hair-raising.”
I asked Hobart Earle to describe the situation of Odessa as of March 25th.
What is the situation in Odessa as we speak?
The entire center of the city is fortified with sandbags and other materials. The famous ‘anti-tank’ hedgehogs adorn some of most famous downtown streets. The beaches are also fortified. Daily air-raid sirens go on several times each day, but so far, the city has been spared, thanks in large part to the heroic defense of the nearby city of Mykolayiv.
What about your musicians?
Some of them are actually in the army. Others are in the civilian defense units, others involved in physical tasks such as sandbagging the beaches, digging trenches and so forth.
Do you know of women musicians who also joined the army?
No, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean anything, because the number of women who have taken weapons into their hands is significant. There may well be musicians among them. Just not to my knowledge.
Did they ever train for this?
There have been many reports of women taking up weapons for the first time in their lives, including that famous 78-year-old-grandmother from Mariupol who was featured very prominently on television a few days before the war. She stated very clearly how she was a peace-loving person, but if people were going to come and try to take her land, she felt obliged to defend it.
To any ethnic Russian, the idea of damaging Odessa should be so surreal as to seem like a horrendous nightmare. The same could apply to peoples of many European nations, since Odessa contains a huge amount of diverse European heritage.Hobart Earle, conductor of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra
You arrived in Odessa in September 1990, in your early thirties, while on tour with a chamber orchestra from Vienna. And you never left. You, the musical graduate from Princeton University, accepted a 50-dollar-monthly salary to salvage a deserted Philharmonic orchestra, raised funds, convinced musicians to stay or come back to this romantic city by the Black Sea, conducted your first concert in April 1991, and over the years, you have rebuilt a world-renowned orchestra, which has now toured the world, and this Orchestra has contributed to the international rebirth of Odessa.
How has the city evolved since 1991?
In every way imaginable. Perhaps most remarkably, a lot of emigres who left the Soviet Union in the late 1970s—thinking they would never return to their beloved native city—came back to visit. Once, then twice. Later they bought properties, invested in the city, made new friends, played a role in the city’s growth.
When you gathered your musicians for the flash mob in the fish market on March 22nd 2014, some of them strongly debated the right of Russia to annex Crimea. They didn’t repeat this division, however, when Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24th.
In 2014, two musicians on opposite sides of the political spectrum, confused with issues of language, history and the idea of Odessa being a free economic zone (like it used to be in the 19th century) almost came to blows. There’s always more than one way to look at history, but the further back you go with the history of Crimea in particular, the more complicated the issue becomes. Anyway, today these two musicians stand together side-by-side in civilian defense units.
What would be the meaning of an attack against Odessa?
To any ethnic Russian, the idea of damaging Odessa should be so surreal as to seem like a horrendous nightmare. The same could apply to peoples of many European nations, since Odessa contains a huge amount of diverse European heritage from so many different countries, all of whom played a significant role in the architecture and the history of the city. Pushkin wrote parts of Eugene Onegin in Odessa. The building where the Greek Revolution (in the 1820s) started is located in the heart of Odessa. Philharmonic Hall, a rare example of Venetian Gothic architecture in Eastern Europe, was built by the Italian Mario Bernardazzi; the Opera House by the famous Viennese architects Helmer and Fellner; Odessa’s first governor was French, Armand, Duc de Richelieu. The list could go on and on.
Music has an infinite capacity to build bridges and bring people together, in a way few other elements of life can.Hobart Earle, conductor of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra
You orchestrated this musical flash mob eight years ago almost to date. You said, “the idea was to bring people together, to breathe out (…), and what better music than Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with (Friedrich) Schiller’s amazing text (Ode to Joy).” On Christmas day 1989, American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, also with a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, replacing the word ‘joy’ (freude in German) with ‘freedom’ (freiheit). More recently, the Metropolitan Opera gave another rendering of the last movement of Beethoven’s symphony during its Concert for Ukraine, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. When you organized your flash mob, some critics questioned your choice of a fish market for Beethoven’s music. Your answer then was, ‘Beethoven would have approved of it.’ The open-air market is one of the largest in the former Soviet Union, it is the place for all the people to congregate safely and shop for food. And you then explained, “Beethoven had this element of protest within himself, and I think he would have probably rejected the criticism that his music had been played in the fish market in this occasion, I think he would have thought that was—as my personal opinion—I think he would have thought that was a good thing to do.”
Has music the power to raise voices on both sides of the border against the war?
The power of music is unique and extremely diverse. Music has an infinite capacity to build bridges and bring people together, in a way few other elements of life can. There are no boundaries to the ability of music to act as a messenger of peace and goodwill. We are already seeing spontaneous musical compositions by Ukrainians, rising up online—not without a strong element of humor—and if such musical creations were to reach the ears of ordinary Russians, I have no doubt many people would be deeply moved.
A lot is being written and discussed about the right for Russian musicians to keep performing throughout the world? Could music and art bring us together?
This is a very tough question. Although there are many Russian musicians strongly opposed to the war – and they should be recognized internationally as such—we at the Odessa Philharmonic were dumbfounded during the first days of the war to hear our executive director recount how one artist (he had performed with us frequently in years gone by) claimed that the photo I posted on my Facebook page of the Odessa Opera with its fortifications was a fake, and that the bombings of Kharkiv were not really happening. For some people, unfortunately the brainwashing has been very severe.
What about cancelling Russian composers?
Again, this is a very tough question. And a very sensitive one. Suffice it for me to say, in the days before the war, I conducted Shostakovich’s 5th symphony as a guest conductor in Poland, and I was struck by how surreal an experience this was – the music is SO relevant to today’s world!
As we spoke, Earle was trying to create a clip video with his musicians to send the world a message: that music cannot die, it cannot vanish. For the United Nations 75th anniversary, he had conducted his orchestra for a special concert in front of the Opera House (available below), and days before the Russian invasion, he and his musicians were still filling the arena of the Odessa Philharmonic with music and hopes.
A few days ago, he sent me the following e-mail:
“One positive update, amidst the darkness – in our town in “occupied” Kherson Province (Delta of the river Dnipro) the locals fixed the gas lines that were damaged by explosions, so after two weeks, the gas is back on. Aida’s Mom and brother don’t need to heat their home with firewood anymore.
Hope dies last!
However, we are worried for our family, in the “occupied” territory.
Hope this finds you well.
Hugs from Aida and me,
Consider a donation to help Ukraine and Ukrainian by making a donation to Razom for Ukraine, a non-for-profit organization led by For Chomiak. Razom provides critical medical supplies as well as tech-enabled emergency response supplies to facilitate the delivery of aid. Meaning “together” in Ukrainian, Razom believes deeply in the enormous potential of dedicated volunteers around the world united by a single goal. To make a donation, click here and hashtag #OdessaPhilharmonicOrchestra