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Balalaika orchestra offers glimpse of instruments, music

Balalaika orchestra offers glimpse of instruments, music

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Jane Norris is my friend.

As features editor at The Daily Progress, she gives me interesting stories to write about. She gave me this one.

She said, and I quote:

“This will be fun. I don’t think we’ve ever had a balalaika concert in Extra. Have fun with it.”

Jane also is very smart. She plays a cello.

I only play the radio.

I don’t even know how to pronounce “balalaika.”

But the Washington Balalaika Society Orchestra is coming to Piedmont Virginia Community College on Sunday. They will be holding a concert in the Main Stage Theatre of the V. Earl Dickinson Building at 3 p.m.

So, not to sound as balalaika-challenged as I really am, I decided to go right to the source.

I contacted Charles Winkler.

He is a member of the Blue Ridge Chamber Orchestra. He also is the only local member of the Washington Balalaika Society Orchestra.

Just so he wouldn’t know that he was conversing with a complete muttonhead, I asked:

“So, what the heck is balalaika?”

Once he stopped chuckling, Winkler was eager to educate yours truly on the wonderful world of balalaika — pronounced bah-la-LIE-kuh.

“I just found out that the first recorded mention was in 1688,” Winkler said. “It was in the daybook of Kremlin guards who stopped two serfs who were playing balalaikas for drunk and disorderly behavior. So it seems it had a checkered past.”

Truth be told, it was quite popular with the peasantry in the 17th century. But this Russian folk music spread to a more affluent crowd, thanks to Vasily Vasillevich Andreyev.

“He was a nobleman in St. Petersburg,” Winkler said. “As [did] most noblemen, their families had a lot of land. One day he was out in the country, and he heard a man playing the balalaika. He decided to devote his life to playing it and playing it well.”

The violin student had the balalaika made into five different sizes to get the desired tones. Some are small. Some are quite large. He wrote music, gathered some musical friends and the Ensemble of Balalaika Players took to the concert halls in 1888.

One hundred years later, the Washington Balalaika Society is keeping the traditional sounds alive and well on this side of the Atlantic. Winkler is one of nearly 60 musicians in one of the largest orchestras of Russian folk instruments in North America. Their music replicates the folk orchestra sounds played then and now in cities and towns throughout Russia.

But, Charles, what exactly is a balalaika?

It’s actually pretty simple. It is indeed a musical instrument that is guitar-like, except it is shaped like a triangle. And it has only three strings.

According to the Washington Balalaika Society Orchestra’s web page, the “balalaika family of instruments” includes the prima balalaika, sekunda balalaika, alto balalaika, bass balalaika and contrabass balalaika.


Not to worry. They are listed in order going from the small, high-pitched instrument to the too-big-to-hold, low-pitched version.

They all have three-sided bodies.

The tops are made of spruce or fir.

The backs are made up of made of three, maybe four, five, six, seven, eight or nine wooden sections.

Some balalaikas are played with fingers. Some are played with picks. Sometimes the picks are leather, if the balalaika has an extension leg that rests on the floor.


The Washington crew plays instruments with three strings.


The musicians also play domras, bayans, gusli or, thank heavens, the folk winds or folk percussions.

Finally, words I know.

Oh. Spoke too soon.

While their music is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, the folk winds include zhaleika, rozhok, svirel, bryolka, volynka and sopilka. And, if I may quote once more, “other more rare and obscure” folk winds.

Ditto with the percussions.

They orchestra members play xylophones, chimes, drums and cymbals. But wouldn’t you know it? They also have also are masters of the korobochka, treshchodka, rubel and lozhki.

Just so you know: the abovementioned gusli is really a table psaltery. For folks like me, it looks like a harpsichord-piano-autoharp thingy.

The bayan is a Russian accordion, and the domra looks like a round balalaika.

Put all these instruments together and they make some pretty cool music. They have been for centuries.

Winkler, who was classically trained in violin and piano, plays the prima domra.

“After playing in grade school and high school, I moved off to bluegrass and folk,” he said. “I had been away from playing in a large ensemble for a while.”

But after moving to Northern Virginia, a friend introduced him to the domra.

“I had played the violin and the mandolin, so the transition was easy,” he said. “I had also studied Russian culture and language for a long time.”

He even worked there for a while.

But after joining the D.C.-based orchestra in 1992, he moved to Charlottesville three years later. Ever since, for nearly 20 years, Winkler has been driving back and forth for Wednesday night rehearsals and performances in venues ranging from the Kennedy Center to Carnegie Hall.

“I enjoy it enough that I am willing to make the time,” he said.

He’s also more than willing to help introduce his hometown to the world of balalaika.

“Basically, we look like any other orchestra … except when we pull our instruments out,” Winkler said. “They look very different.”

Some sound different.

“There is this weird Russian horn that has a funny kind of honk, like a New Year’s Eve noisemaker,” he said with a laugh. “We only play it on some songs.”

But make no mistake — these musicians are polished. About 45 of his balalaika orchestra-mates will make the drive to Charlottesville on Sunday.

Among the talented troupe members making their local debut is conductor and artistic director Svetlana Nikonova.

Nikonova and her husband graduated from Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in St. Petersburg, one of Russia’s pre-eminent conservatories. He plays the bayan. Their daughter plays percussions and flute with the group.

Olga Orlovskaya, whose great-grandfather knew Andreyev, will be the evening’s featured vocalist.

“It is a treat to have her,” Winkler said.

On Sunday we have a chance to listen and learn more.

Oh, that Jane was right, as usual.

This was fun.

I bet the concert will be, too.

You can find tickets at Plan 9 Music, Sidetracks, University of Virginia Arts Box Office, Greenberry’s Coffee in Barracks Road and at PVCC.

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