Folk orchestra plays Russian music

On Sunday, April 17, the University of Wisconsin Russian Folk Orchestra travelled to Appleton to perform in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. Together, about 40 musicians performed various pieces on authentic Russian instruments such as the balalaika and domra. Many Lawrence students and Appleton residents attended the concert.

Victor Gorodinsky, the ensemble’s founder and conductor, works primarily as a Slavic Languages Librarian at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Born in Moscow, Russia, Gorodinsky is passionate about bringing Russian folk tradition to Wisconsin and the Midwest. In concert, his stage presence was powerful and his conducting expertise was obvious.

The Russian Folk Orchestra does not include many typical orchestral instruments; this group shares only the flute and oboe with the modern symphony orchestra. Most of the players use either a domra or balalaika. Both of these instruments come from the lute family of string instruments. The domra has a round body, and the balalaika has a shallow, triangular body. They come in several sizes, some as large as a string bass.

The first piece listed in the program was “Patriotic Song,” and it served to introduce the audience to the Russian folk style. Many people in the audience had attended the pre-concert lecture and instrument display and were excited to finally hear the instruments in action. The overall sound was dominated by a plodding bass line and tremolo-style strumming. In the background, one could hear the harmonies of the accordion-like bayan.

Members of the ensemble dressed in traditional Russian garments. The men’s shirts and robes were white, and the women wore colorful dresses. The group is comprised of students from the University of Wisconsin and interested community members, many of whom have Russian heritage or a special interest in Russian culture.

After several pieces, Gorodinsky stepped to the side and introduced alto Anna Gubenkova. Gubenkova, originally from Belarus, has performed with the Russian Folk Orchestra many times in recent years. Her standout song was called “The Black Raven,” or “Чёрный Борон” in Russian, which was composed by conductor Gorodinsky. It featured dark lyrics and a low-range flute counter-melody.

During the final standing ovation, Gorodinsky signaled that the audience should sit back down. The orchestra had planned an encore: “Tonight,” from “West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein. While it was a surprising choice, the musicians seemed excited about it.

Unfortunately, they had to restart the encore after about fifteen seconds of the introductory material came out scrambled. Gorodinsky turned back to the audience and said with a smile, “It happens even with the New York Philharmonic!” The second time, all of the parts came together cleanly. The balalaikas played a special version of the famous melody, and everyone cheered afterward. It was fun to spend the night learning about traditional Russian folk performance.