The University of Wisconsin Russian Folk Orchestra paid their first visit to Lawrence since the year 2000 this Saturday, Apr. 6. The orchestra, founded in 1995 by music director Victor Gorodinsky, is now in its 22nd season. It was clear from the moment members of the ensemble entered onto the stage wielding several unfamiliar instruments and dressed in traditional Russian attire that this performance was going to be quite distinguishable from an average orchestral concert.
The most eye-catching of the instruments was the huge, triangular, four-stringed balalaika. The balalaika is comparable to an upright bass in its function, but its appearance is much more intimidating. It is one of two authentic Russian instruments the ensemble performs with, the other being the domra, which is three-stringed and lute-like.
The opening song was a waltz entitled “Hymn to the Great City,” which refers to Saint Petersburg, Russia. Listening to the piece, one might feel as though they are strolling through the city, stepping in time. Hands strummed quickly up and down the dormas, eliciting a jittery sound. “Birch Tree Waltz,” the second piece, had a gloomier feeling to it, but was equally enticing.
Gorodinsky enthusiastically brought out vocal soloist Anya Gubenkova, who has been with the ensemble for five years, for the third and fourth pieces, “Handzia” and “Three Winters.” Gubenkova wore a striking red skirt and matching boots, which were fitting for the gleeful “Handzia.” Gubenkova, singing in Russian, and Gorodinsky, fervently conducting, fed off each other’s energy, dancing subtly in sync with one another. “Three Winters” was much more sullen, and the dormas plucked in such a way that it almost sounded like snowfall.
Gubenkova exited the stage for the following four instrumentals: “Second Waltz,” “On the Sea,” “Russian Song” and the world premiere of a piece titled “Raindrops.” Gorodinsky explained that he got permission to perform “Raindrops” by messaging the composer on Facebook; when the crowd chuckled at this, Gorodinsky retorted, “What, did you think I was going to send her a letter?” The piece was slow, mysterious and truly beautiful—a stunning first performance.
For a surprise piece, Gubenkova came back out to perform “Under the Willow Tree” which did not appear in the program. The song began with a single note dragged out by the accordionists. The note continued to be held as Gubenkova sang. Halfway through, the other instrumentalists came in, also holding the same one note. This piece, without the distraction of the instrumental, highlighted Gubenkova’s extraordinary voice and the beauty of the Russian language.
The next song, “Waltz,” was originally composed by Eugen Dogs for the 1978 Soviet film “Мой ласковый и нежный зверь” (“My Sweet and Tender Beast”). Next, Gorodinsky conducted a song of his own, entitled “Lullaby.” The quiet and soothing piece showcased his incredible talent. The closing number, “Romantic Prelude,” was the liveliest yet; Gorodinsky practically leapt across the stage with fervor. When the song was over, the audience gave a well-deserved standing ovation. Gubenkova was handed a bouquet of flowers, and Gorodinsky received a single rose. Upon seeing this, Gorodinsky said jokingly into the microphone, “How’d she get more than me?”