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Balalaika orchestra brings taste of old Russia to Boston


Russian folk music and works by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, Shostakovich, Strauss, and Bizet.

Dmitri Khokhlov conducting.

Jan. 9 in Symphony Hall.

Event in The Tech Performing Arts Series.



HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A balalaika? One cannot help being struck with puzzlement on first encountering the tiny instrument, traditionally containing two to four strings. It is a descendant of the lute, itself most probably an instrument of Arabic origin.

Created in a number of sizes (alto, bass, double-bass), the balalaika has somehow come to represent the musical heart and soul of the Russian people. Modest in appearance, it is nevertheless capable of speaking with the most startling authority. Imagine then an orchestra of 65 or so, made up principally of balalaikas.

The Andreyev Balalaika Orchestra was originally founded in 1888 by Vassily Vasilievich Andreyev, a well-known musician and musicologist of the time. Located in what was then St. Petersburg, it served as orchestra to the imperial court.

In 1911, the orchestra made its debut at Carnegie Hall in New York but, surprisingly, has not been back to this country since. Its one-day performance at Symphony Hall was therefore something of a momentous occasion. No one who attended came away disappointed.

The program consisted of 23 pieces of wide variety, including works of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, Shostakovich, Bizet, and Strauss, as well as a half-dozen traditional works.

Unusual instruments were by no means limited to the balalaika, but included the gusli (a plucked dulcimer), the bayan (the Russian accordion), and the dorma (a lute-shaped version of the balalaika). The percussion was nothing short of incredible, with devices beyond the imagination popping constantly and delightfully to the galloping string ensemble. Even a musical saw (struck with a Soviet-style hammer) appeared, employed not only with great undulating skill, but with great humor. Last but not least was a virtuoso performance by Alexandre Chernobayev on the xylophone.

Russian literature is replete with images of the troika -- a sled harnessed to three spirited horses. To have them take off "at full collection" is something like the feeling experienced when all those balalaikas resonate together to their magnificent precision fingering.

The conductor, Dmitri Khokhlov, provided masterful control of the orchestra and music. Only 44 years of age, Khokhlov was trained in choral conducting at the Leningrad, and then Moscow Conservatories. He has also worked at the Kirov Theatre and was assistant conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.

Three Russian folk songs were sung in solo performance by Gleb Nikolsky, a member of the Bolshoi Theatre whose massive physique easily delivered a rich, vibrant bass. You just knew you were in "bear country." Nikolsky has also appeared at La Scala, where he received part of his training, having graduated as recently as 1979 from Moscow University.

At the completion of the program, the audience went wild with enthusiasm, calling for four encores, which began (of course) with the "Lara" theme from Dr. Zhivago, and finally ended with . . . The Stars and Stripes Forever! An amazing lesson in harmony for all the world to follow!

Let us hope that the Andreyev Balalaika Orchestra returns again soon.