Strum A Balalaika: Listen To Russian Folk Music This Saturday

Jul 10, 2014

The Russian Folk Orchestra of the Balalaika and Domra Association of America
Credit Balalaika and Domra Association of America

This week musicians from all over the world have been practicing like crazy to prepare for Saturday night's Russian Folk Concert at Chenery Auditorium.

The Balalaika and Domra Association of America is holding their annual convention in Kalamazoo, where they only have five days to put together a music program.

“Believe me by the end of the week our fingers are very sore from the number of hours we’re playing every day,” says David Cooper of the Atlanta Balalaika Society.

The balalaika and domra are traditional Russian stringed instruments that look almost lute-like. The domra is round while the balalaika is more triangular shaped. Alexander Tentser of Arizona is conducting the Russian Folk Orchestra this year. He says the instruments give Russian music that soulful sound.

“You know the Russian history has lots of tragic moments. The time of troubles you know, 16th century, 17th century. Even in the 20th century one of the worst really in the history: two wars, so many people perished in Stalin’s oppressions," Tentser explains. "So I think that’s reflected in the music. A lot of it is sad and soulful, very poetic, lyrical. We call them ‘prolong Russian songs.’ Sometimes they have unusual meters like 5/4, 7/4 and unusual structures.”

At Saturday’s concert there will be several guest soloists including Gennady Zut of Detroit, Peter Omelchenko of Moscow, and surprise guest Tatiana Homenko of Ukraine.

“Now the sound of the balalaika is really unique," says Tentser. "The dombra sound is sort of close to mandolin, it’s a very nice and mellow sound. But the sound of the balalaika is very unique. It’s a very virtuosic instrument and if played by a true master, true artist like we have Gennady Zut—who will be performing in the concert—he can really produce such unusual sounds. Like a human voice: very rich and loud and soft. And all kinds of shadings are possible.”

Originally the balalaika was an instrument of the common man. Tentser says during a wave of Russian nationalism in the mid-1800s the Czar built the country’s first conservatory and encouraged soldiers to learn the balalaika. He says now the instrument is taught in schools and conservatories all over Russia.

Tentser says the concert will feature traditional tunes as well as dance music and modern jazz arrangements. David Cooper says you can also get a good look at an instrument you don’t see every day.

“We’re setting up a balalaika petting zoo at the concert out in the lobby," he says. "Where we’ll have several instruments on display so people can kind of touch them and strum them and see what they look like up close.”

Cooper says the convention is like a family reunion. It’s a chance to see old friends and get the latest balalaika sheet music.

“It’s not something you can go to your local music store and buy. We have to communicate with other orchestras, other directors, arrangers to find out what’s new, what can we play this year that’s new that we haven’t given to our audience before," says Cooper. "Even though it’s a very traditional form, there’s still new things happening all the time with this music.”

BDAA President Judy Sherman says one of her favorite parts is the after party.

“We’re doing a lot of cabaret style tunes that we know and love. And the gypsy music which Russians are always passionate about and always have been,” she says. “So, you know, we have a lot of common ground that we play without music and do that for hours in the night. And that has brought us all together for many years.”

The Russian Folk Orchestra will be performing Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Chenery Auditorium in Kalamazoo.