photo of Edie Holbrook '61

Holbrook tunes into Russia, youth

For Edie Holbrook '61, joy means working with talented young artists as they resolve cultural differences, create an orchestra from scratch, and wow audiences around the world.

For the past 15 years, Holbrook has been doing just that. Now, she is stepping down as founding president of the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra (ARYO), a world-class organization whose objective is to enhance the careers of Russian and American musicians. Holbrook leaves ARYO poised to continue to offer a unique window on Russia and American-Russian relations and a rare cross-cultural adventure and artistic experience. "I always think of ARYO as a third republic, hence an orchestra that is far stronger than either nation could produce alone," Holbrook says.

She helped start ARYO in 1987, while vice president for international communications at AFS Intercultural Programs. She and her associates were searching for a diplomatic initiative that would link the United States and the Soviet Union in a highly visible joint endeavor in the waning days of the Cold War. "We figured the most productive way to put the two countries together was to engage the next generation in creating something from scratch," Holbrook says. "So we chose the idea of a symphonic orchestra, which is one of the most complex human organizations of all, and an entity that could parade its accomplishments on the world stage."

Holbrook, S. Frederick Starr, then president of Oberlin College, and Grace Kennan Warnecke, daughter of Ambassador George F. Kennan, founded the American Soviet Youth Orchestra (ASYO), the first jointly produced U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange, as a venture between Oberlin, AFS and the Moscow State Conservatory. Holbrook then spearheaded the launching of ARYO after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. She produced ARYO's nine world tours under maestros ranging from Zubin Mehta to Leonard Slatkin, Paavo Jarvi, Dimitri Kitayenko and Leon Botstein. Today, ARYO operates under the umbrella of Bard College and its president Leon Botstein, who also serves as artistic director.

ARYO has high standards. Musicians are selected by American and Russian jurors. In the first year, roughly 1,000 youths auditioned for 110 slots. A measure of their caliber is the impressive number of alumni who now hold seats, including principals, in the great orchestras of both countries.

But cultural exchange is at ARYO's heart. "This is an educational experience that no classroom can match," Holbrook says.

ARYO has a history of regeneration because the age of musicians must stay between 17 and 26 and because of the ever-changing Russian scenario. In some ways, Holbrook finds the new Russia easier to work in than the Soviet Union. Funding from the old government came with stipulations on repertoire, venues, and which musicians would perform. When the Soviet Union collapsed, ARYO lost half its constituency. "Musicians had to be drawn from Russia proper, and not the new republics," says Holbrook. "But the walls of bureaucracy were down. Decision making was fast. It was wide open, almost a free for all, and one had to move fast to capitalize on that window of time. My first move was to get out to the provinces, to bypass the center and establish ties directly with the regional conservatories so that the new ARYO would be truly national in scope. I was also able to tap the nascent private sector for funds, and engage both First Ladies as our honorary chairs, their only partnership on the world stage."

During the Soviet era the two groups were treated differently, Holbrook recalls. Americans might travel by airplane while Soviets were put on a train. Soviets roomed together, as did Americans.

There is more mixing between Russians and Americans. "As we moved away from the Cold War and into the New Russia, and now the emerging relationship between Bush and Putin, there are major opportunities for collaboration," Holbrook says. "As this takes shape, ARYO can vividly demonstrate that our countries can indeed work together, that we are an investment in shaping new leadership in both countries. This is our 'beyond the concert halls' mission."

In addition to chamber music programs and training in community outreach and arts administration, ARYO places young American musicians in Russian orchestras for approximately two months. These international residencies "sends a strong message to the world, namely that we are capitalizing on one of Russia's greatest assets, its culture," says Holbrook. "Our musicians also emerge with an unprecedented understanding of what it is like to be a musician in Russia."

ARYO also plans to broaden opportunities for young Russians in Russia. A program of liberal arts studies through Bard College and St. Petersburg University's Smolny Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences will encourage Russian musicians to return to their country to help strengthen its struggling orchestras. "Our goal is to create emissaries of Russian culture, not émigrés," Holbrook says.

On September 11, 2001, ARYO's Musika 2001 chamber musicians were poised to tour Russia-indeed walking into their first concert in Saint Petersburg-when they heard piecemeal reports of the attack on the World Trade Center. Only after the performance did they learn the details. Despite worldwide tension and uncertainty, the tour continued across Russia, into Estonia, and on to the United States. In Russia, ARYO performed at memorial services at the U.S. Embassy and the American Chamber of Commerce, among other venues.

"This was music as diplomacy at its best," Holbrook says. "We demonstrated togetherness, courage and tenacity under real stress. And the sunshine side was that rather than being bystanders and having to watch this horror show, we could actually do something that would help other people. By extension, that taught our musicians something about themselves, namely their potential to play a larger role in society."

Holbrook has never formally studied Russian, but rather learned "street Russian" through part-time tutors and on the job. She taught Russian history at Vermont Academy while her architect husband ran a 400-acre farm in Grafton. Her Russian tutor in Vermont was, by coincidence, teaching English to Solzhenityzyn's children.

"Working in Russia over 15 years, as this vast nation undergoes seismic changes, has been a learning curve that little else can equal," Holbrook says. "This is history in the making. It is also constant crisis management for anyone working in its midst! But I thrive on that. I am always amazed when we actually succeed in getting the job done, and the show goes on. I derive joy from the challenge of coming up with an idea and making it happen, and with Mother Russia on the other end of that equation, that is a test of anyone's mettle. The political situation, and its leadership, is light years ahead of economic development, so what might sound possible is actually very hard to pull off when you get down to bottom line issues."

ARYO and alumnae
ARYO has its share of Bryn Mawr connections. In October Carolyn Goldmark Goodman '61, who put Holbrook in touch with the music director of the Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra, invited ARYO's Amirus Chamber Players to Las Vegas. The group performed in the Cartier Connoisseur Series and did an outreach program at the Meadows School, which Goodman founded, for 150 students and faculty.

Jennifer Johnson '90, a company manager at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge MA, was a librarian for ARYO's tour in the summer of 2002. Johnson conferred with the conductors and the management to determine which musical editions ARYO would perform. She ordered the pieces from the appropriate publishers and prepared the parts, coordinating string bowings, inserting cuts, and checking for notation errors. Once the orchestra began rehearsals, she was on hand to change bowings and handle musical emergencies: "When we flew overseas, the airlines temporarily lost the huge case that contained all of the music," Johnson relates. "We had a concert in Yerevan to play, but no parts for the players. With the help of a half-hearted translator who kept wandering away and a lot of hand/facial gestures, I explained the situation to the orchestra librarian of the Armenian Symphony Orchestra. As luck would have it, he happened to have some of the music that we needed. Unfortunately, the music was a different edition than ARYO had been using, and did not match the ARYO conductor's score (which the conductor had kept with him). I spent the two hours before the concert frantically scanning the conductor's score and the Armenian orchestra parts for discrepancies and writing out changes."

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