Although the Andreyev Balalaika Orchestra was last seen around here in 1911, there was an uncanny warmth and familiarity to its music Sunday afternoon, like your grandmother's attic. Indeed, its program at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall included a few of the old ballads that Russian grandmothers play on the spinet.
Balalaika orchestras owe their existence to the Andreyev's namesake. This 19th-century aristocrat endowed the old tunes with a second life in lavish arrangements for large ensembles. Indeed, the balalaika tunes and the orchestras emerged from the romantic era's fascination with "peasant" culture, and the repertoire has changed little.
Such ensembles are fortified with other Russian traditional instruments such as bayan (accordion) and gusli (dulcimer), not to mention modern winds and an elaborate percussion section. In fact, if you closed your eyes during the fast, upbeat passages of V.V. Andreyev's "Triumphal Polonaise," you might have thought you were hearing a "real" pops orchestra with violins and cellos. During the slow, sad passages of Russian chestnuts such as "I Am Blamed by the People," the distinctive quality of balalaikas and domras emerged. They seemed to weep as heart-wrenchingly as the human voice -- that is, until the Russian bass Gleb Nikolsky vied for superiority in that department with forceful renditions of Russian folk songs.
Sunday's generous program was divided among weepy chestnuts ("Song of the Volga Boatmen") and rousing showpieces (the march and polonaise arranged by Andreyev). There were also arrangements of tunes borrowed from opera and ballet. A particular standout was V. Ditel's "Peddlers," a colorful panorama of street merriments rendered with fierceness and humor that would have done Petrushka proud.
The orchestra's excellent soloists outdid themselves, in circus fashion. With his metronomic machination, xylophonist Alexandre Chernobyev indulged the audience when it clamored for more goodies like I.E. Rogalev's "The Cuckoo Clock."