THE BLOG

Strains in Odessa

02/09/2009 02:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm at the concert hall in Odessa, sitting on stage behind the first violins as the orchestra rehearses the Scherzo of the Schumann Symphony No. 2. A wave of pathos moves across the groups of players. Now the mournful theme is shifting from minor to major, introducing an element of hope.

Lots of metaphors are embedded in this scene, a five-minute walk from the historic Ukrainian port on the Black Sea. Preparing for this trip, I went online to find artistic offerings during our two-day stay. Nothing at all. But when we arrived, we discovered Carmen waiting for us. The opera performance was somewhat uneven, but the arias, costumes, and set were terrific.

As much as the performance, the enormous and ornate opera house is the icon of Odessa. Designed by the same architect as the venerable Vienna Opera, replete with gilded ornamentation, grand marble staircases, endless chandeliers, and the occasional satyr - it's a visual thrill. After 11 years of restoration, including shoring up the unstable foundation, it reopened in 2007. There were "financing problems," I'm informed. Yes, like $50 million of state funding that just disappeared. Seems Ukraine has a long way to go on the corruption scale; I'm told the problem starts at top political and business spheres. I'm appalled - until I remember about a thousand examples of special interest money influencing US policy makers.

Back on the wooden stage, to the right of the timpani, looking out on a sea of empty red velvet seats... I love these hours of rehearsal, watching my husband pull every bit of beauty from the cellos, cajole a solo out of the oboe, and refine the rumble of the kettle drums. I revel in these rehearsals. It's a shame that the concert audience sees only his back. Instead, they watch the dispassionate faces of the violinists, so intent on counting the rest measures so as not to miss their next entrance. Meanwhile, Charles is not only setting the tempo and giving entrances and cut-offs. His occasional potpourri of words - English, German, Italian, Russian - all seem incidental as his lips, eyebrows, hands, and posture give cues that the players pick up with their peripheral vision.

Hobart Earle, an American, has been the orchestra director for 16 years and is credited with its high standard. Charles says the orchestra is excellent, and Hobie is "really something of a hero." Given the political and economic crises, this country needs a lot of heroes right now. The deputy prime minister in Kiev told me that Odessa is the most important cultural center of this country of 48 million. The orchestra is at the center, performing almost every week, but there's also a Russian Theater and a Ukrainian Theater. (Everyone speaks Russian, although I'm told "60 percent of the population thinks in Ukrainian" and schooling is mostly in Ukrainian.)

Yegor Yegorov is a tall, 28-year old pianist with brown shaggy hair, which falls at times over his enormous brown eyes. He plays the Mozart 13th Concerto splendidly. He admits that he's nervous before a hometown crowd. "The audience is super intelligent, sophisticating, discriminating. They know music very well, so it's big challenge to play for them."

Yegor studied at the Stolyarskiy Academy, founded by a great professor of music before Soviet times. Some 200-300 students, age six to sixteen, take intensive classes in instruments, choir, and music theory on top of their regular subjects, before moving on to the conservatory.

Well, now it's evening, and time for the concert. The hall is full, buzzing with excited expectation. Little girls are dressed in adorable satin dresses. Four women in their seventies are sitting on the first two rows with flowers for Yegor and Charles, neither of whom they knew. The applause begins the strong, rhythmic pounding with pleasure, typical of Eastern European audience. The women's faces light up with exhilaration as they hand long-stem red roses up to the stage.

Whatever the challenges ahead, the loud, throbbing clap of the audience insists, Ukraine must make it.