When Ohio State alumni and childhood friends Douglas Droste and Christian Howes reunited in February to perform an unconventional orchestral piece, neither musician imagined the international attention a single YouTube recording would garner.
“I was kind of shocked and really excited,” said Howes of his initial reaction to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine’s offer to sponsor the musicians’ involvement in an ongoing cultural exchange.
Both Columbus natives, Droste and Howes grew up playing together in the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra and went on to study under the same violin teacher at OSU, Howes said.
A classically-trained violinist who has been playing since the age of 5, Howes graduated from OSU with a degree in philosophy in 1999 and established a career as a performer and educator in the Columbus area. He currently offers an online curriculum of music courses called the Creative Strings Academy and hosts an annual summer workshop in Central Ohio.
A former member of the OSU Marching Band, Droste graduated from Ohio State in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in music education.
“We met, back up maybe 12 or 13 years ago, and we have just been partnering on several projects,” said Droste, artistic director of the Muncie Symphony Orchestra and director of orchestras at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine first took notice of Droste and Howes after viewing their YouTube recording of them playing Scott Routenberg’s “Concerto for Jazz Violin,” which was performed at a winter concert by the Muncie Symphony Orchestra.
Featuring Howes as a guest soloist, this concerto combined jazz improvisation on the violin with the traditional interpretation of classical music by a full orchestra.
“This is a unique instance when jazz does mix with orchestral music,” Droste said. “It was unique enough that (the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine) saw it and said, ‘That would be a great representation of Americana, having a mix of everything.’”
Impressed by the performance, representatives from the embassy invited Droste and Howes to perform for a week in Ukraine as part of an ongoing cultural exchange program.
In the past months, eastern Ukraine has been a hotbed of political unrest following the annexation of the Crimean region by Russia on March 16. Last Thursday, a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet carrying 298 people was shot down by what appears to be a surface-to-air missile over Ukrainian airspace. The missile’s origin is still being investigated, according to the Associated Press website.
Despite the high political tensions apparent in Ukraine, Droste said he and Howes received constant updates from their contact at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev and were not deterred in their decision to visit the country.
“Of course, whenever you are going over to an area that you’ve never been to before, and you’ve only heard what you’ve seen on the news, there is a little bit of anxiety initially,” he said. “But once we got there, it was a great old European city, and there was really no evidence of any kind of riot or conflict… there was no sense of danger.”
Howes agreed and said he was not worried about traveling to Ukraine.
“Definitely people that I know and people in my family were nervous for me,” he said. “(But) I personally was never nervous.”
From June 17 to 23, Droste said he and Howes stayed in a hotel in Lviv, a city approximately 290 miles from the capital city of Kiev.
During their visit, the musicians had the opportunity to explore the culture of this foreign city by teaching workshops, rehearsing with an orchestra and performing a program based on the theme “Music of the New World.”
“I put together a program that had a loose theme of jazz and Americana,” Droste said.
The program included pieces such as the “Overture to Candide” by Leonard Bernstein and Antonin Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9,” commonly known as the “New World Symphony.”
“Thank You for Teaching Us,” an original composition by Howes dedicated to his first violin teacher, was also performed as part of the program.
“The piece is a mix of elements from both the jazz world and the classical music world,” he said. “It was a perfect fit because that is what the concert symbolically represented… mixing jazz with classical and showing this combination of the new and the old.”
Howes said he thinks the program’s message was well received by the Ukrainian audience.
“I think that is one of those things (to which) people look at the U.S. with admiration … the fact that the U.S. is very innovative in terms of the arts and music,” he said. “I think that is part of the reason why the U.S. Embassy wanted to have this program. They thought it would make something that is truly artistically American… (something) that would be compelling to the people over there and something people would receive with appreciation.”
In addition to the American themes included in the program, Droste said he felt inspired to perform a piece by Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk called “Melody.”
“(‘Melody’) has become kind of an unofficial national anthem for (the Ukrainian people), and I performed it at the very end of the concert. The crowd was so touched and emotional, and they kept bringing me out onstage,” he said. “So we played their Ukrainian piece again. And then they spontaneously broke into the Ukrainian national anthem, just singing it a cappella. It was extremely touching.”
Howes said that he hopes the program left an impact on its international audience.
“I think the people felt that they learned a lot about Americans,” he said. “I think that they felt our warmth and our support, and they were appreciative… I think that we also warmed a lot of hearts and minds.”
Droste said he thinks this experience affirms the view of music as a unifying force that transcends cultural differences and language barriers.
“It is kind of a cliche phrase that music is the universal language, but after this trip and other European trips I have done, it is so spot-on,” he said. “There can be so many conflicts, but once you sit down and start playing music together, they all go away.”