The Odessa Balalaikas are five from Los Angeles who play 10 or 12 instruments as if they had been born on the steppes of central Russia a century ago. Last night they played their East Coast debut in Tawes Theater at the University of Maryland. If eastern management is on the ball these five will be back early and often.
They played balalaikas in all sizes as well as the domra, tubular bells, piano, and a fabulous Russian version of the zither called the gusli. This last instrument has 15 strings instead of the balalaika's three. In the hands of Jonathan Rothe it made magical sounds while he played in great circular stirring motions or swept across its strings in ghostly glissandos.
In "Kalinka," Linda O'Brien -- would you believe an O'Brien singing Russian? -- sang in a bewitching low-key manner that took the audience by storm.
Not all of the music was Russian. They did Mozart's famous Turkish Rondo in a way that reminded you of the harpsichord at the same time that it came out with all the plucked, tinkling sound that Mozart had in mind.
One of the major surprises and rewards from Mussorgsky's famous "Pictures at an Exhibition." With the bells, now and then the piano, but most of all, the full resonance of the balalaika choir, the familiar music came out sounding somehow more Russian even that the piano original, to say nothing of its various transcriptions.