Washington has dueling balalaika orchestras; one is more traditionally Russian

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010

The largest balalaika orchestra outside of Russia is based in Arlington. The balalaika orchestra that won the international competition "Music Vladivostok 2007" is also based in Arlington. They are two different orchestras. And apart from their instrument, they don't have much in common.

The balalaika is a triangular Russian folk instrument, like a three-stringed guitar. It's ubiquitous in Russia, rare here, and generally thought of in both countries as an emblem of ethnic music, even kitsch. Peter Trofimenko, the conductor of the American Balalaika Symphony (the second of the above-mentioned groups) describes the stereotypical audience as "people who just want to play the theme from 'Dr. Zhivago' in colored shirts, with vodka toasts."

But in the late 19th century, an aristocrat named Vasily Andreyev decided that the instrument belonged in the concert hall, and assembled a group of players to perform, among other things, the scherzo from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. (The Tchaikovsky family got a court injunction to prevent such desecration.) And there have been balalaika orchestras ever since: ensembles of 50 or more players on different sizes of balalaika and domra, the instrument's round cousin, complete with conductors and an assortment of other traditional wind and percussion instruments. There are a handful of them in the United States. Two of those happen to be based in the D.C. area.

On Saturday, the American Balalaika Symphony will be featured at Strathmore as the winner of the "Great Strathmore Giveaway," a competition the center put on to help celebrate its 25th season. The prize: appearing for one night in the concert hall. (This is no small thing: Factoring in technical staff and promotion, the evening is costing Strathmore about $27,000).

Arlington's balalaika concentration is partly a matter of chance. The Washington Balalaika Society, the city's older balalaika orchestra, was founded in 1988 when Max McCullough, an executive with IBM (since retired), moved here from Houston, where he had been a leader of the Houston Balalaika Society. McCullough discovered that, although there are balalaika orchestras "in the gosh-darnedest places," there was none in the nation's capital. His society began as a group of eight friends playing in his basement; within a couple of years, membership was up to 25.

In 2001, there was a schism when Trofimenko, a balalaika soloist and sometime leader of the Washington Balalaika Society, had his own ideas about the direction in which the group should go. He ultimately left and founded the American Balalaika Symphony. Relations are not particularly warm between the institutions.

The Washington Balalaika Society focuses on traditional instruments, traditional costumes and a repertory that is "75 percent Russian," McCullough says, "because we think that's what audiences come to hear."

The American Balalaika Symphony seeks to move beyond the traditional ethnic repertory, to the point of including a full complement of symphonic wind instruments. "The scores that we play are highly sophisticated symphonic scores," Trofimenko says. "We have music from jazz and pop tunes through to Baroque or a symphony by Mehul."

American conservatories generally don't include training on the balalaika. Most players in these largely amateur groups have no Eastern European background and come to the instrument relatively late, some with experience on the guitar or violin. Edith Poetzschke, 84, who has been playing domra with the American Balalaika Symphony since its inception, originally played the mandolin. Another player, Rick Netherton, the leader of the contrabass balalaikas, is a police officer in Falls Church who sometimes shows up to rehearsal in full uniform. This orchestra's brass section is, however, mainly professional musicians.

Both orchestras include a couple of ringers from Russia who also give lessons, and each orchestra is led by a conductor who trained in Russian conservatories. Svetlana Nikonova of the Washington Balalaika Society used to lead the Andreyev Balalaika Orchestra. Trofimenko still works part of each year in Ukraine.

The distinctive timbre of a balalaika orchestra was certainly one of the things that caught the attention of Shelley Brown, Strathmore's vice president of programming, in selecting the American Balalaika Symphony as the winner. "It's a tremolo, shimmery sound," she says. "I thought it would showcase the hall, and [the hall would] make them sound really good."

Trofimenko has great ambitions for the American Balalaika Symphony, which has already won a couple of awards. He hopes to expand ever further into a broader repertory, to encourage composers to write for the distinctive orchestration. But in applying to the Strathmore competition, he ultimately opted for a Russian program, "to play it safe," he says. And it was lucky he did. "What set the group apart," Brown says, "is that there was a unique fit between ensemble and the program they put together, which used traditional instruments and had a mostly traditional content."

In short, you can take the balalaika out of Russia, but the American Balalaika Symphony has a way to go before getting Russia out of the balalaika.

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