In his more than twenty-five years conducting the Princeton University Orchestra and directing the Program in Musical Performance, Michael Pratt has no doubt seen a number of his students go on to undertake careers in music. One of the department’s early success stories has been Hobart Earle, a 1983 graduate of the University (only six years after Pratt’s arrival) and now an international conductor with a long-term post in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Mr. Earle returned to Princeton this past weekend to conduct his alma mater’s orchestra in a program of expansive symphonic works.
Mr. Earle programmed three works composed within twenty years of one another, and each one painted a picture of a geographic region or musical era. The selections from Edvard Grieg’s music from Peer Gynt were likely more familiar to the audience from their piano transcriptions, and effectively told a story from Norwegian folklore. This music was characterized by the playwright as reflecting “apathy,” but there was nothing apathetic about the orchestra’s performance on Friday night in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated on Saturday night). Mr. Earle proved right off to be a very decisive conductor, conducting without the score but with very broad conducting strokes. In the opening excerpt, he focused on the lament, emphasizing that it was clear something had happened beforehand. Steady timpani provided by Karis Schneider kept the rhythm moving forward, aided by clean upper flutes, cellos, and double basses. The melodic “Morning Mood” tune was well played by the flute, answered by oboist Drew Mayfield, and kept instrumentally lush by Mr. Earle. Flexibility was the key in the “Hall of the Mountain King” excerpt, with the staccato passages played cleanly and with direction by the ensemble.
Erik Satie’s three Gymnopedies were also originally composed for piano, with two later orchestrated by Satie’s great friend Claude Debussy. Being Debussy, one might expect a multi-palette orchestration with many winds, but in fact, the pieces are scored for strings, one oboe and two flutes. In presenting these works, Mr. Earle kept the focus on simplicity and a gentle approach, allowing the sound to float along. Crucial to Friday night’s performance was the exemplary oboe playing of Alexa McCall against a pair of horns. The second Gymnopedie was titled “Lent et grave,” with subtle shifts in effect that were well brought out by Mr. Earle and the orchestra.
Mr. Earle brought the orchestra to full volume with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 in F Major, a monumental work with a great deal of dynamic variety in the writing. Conducting from memory (as he did all the pieces on the program), Mr. Earle maintained an easy flow to the music (aided by very subtle and precise brass), bringing the dynamics up at the end of the movement to be solid but not overwhelming. Clarinetist Jeffrey Hodes delivered an elegant melody in the first movement, in conjunction with very smooth flute playing by the section.
The second andante movement opened with very delicate playing by Mr. Hodes and fellow clarinetist Matt Goff and bassoonists Louisa Slosar and Tiffany Huang. Wind playing excelled in this movement, especially from the four oboes and perfect unison playing between Mr. Hodes and oboist Lija Treibergs. Mr. Earle kept the melody of the third movement flowing with emphasis on the offbeat phrasing, bringing out the warmth of the movement with well-blended instrumental solos. Throughout the concert, Mr. Earle held a baton, but often put it aside to move the music more effectively with his hands. This was especially the case in the allegro fourth movement, in which he allowed the orchestra to play almost on its own.
In his 19 years with the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra in the Ukraine, Mr. Earle has been credited with introducing the region to the great symphonies of composers the rest of the world may take for granted but which may have been unknown to the closed musical circles of Ukraine. Mr. Earle seems to be one of the unknown conducting gems in this country, and as a representative of Princeton, the University could not ask for a better musical ambassador.